On December 6th 1917 two cargo ships traveling through Halifax harbour collided, creating the largest explosion until the detonation of the atomic bomb. The explosion killed many people and devastated Halifax, its harbour and the neighbouring towns of Richmond and Darmouth. The towns surrounding the harbour were thriving thanks to the war overseas and their populations grew drastically. Halifax quickly became a "boom" town by 1917, only three years after the war. Halifax's population was about 50, 000 before the explosion, which at the time was one of the largest in Atlantic Canada. Businesses and industries around the harbour were on the rise since everything in Halifax revolved around the harbour.
Since WWI broke out, Halifax harbour was extremely busy due to wartime shipping. It was so busy that the harbour traffic control couldn't keep up with the sheer volume of ships passing through daily. Collisions were frequent in the harbour. The ships usually followed "the rules of the road", which meant that ships had to pass each other on the right and signal their intentions and respect those of others. The two ships involved in the collision, the Monte-Blanc and the Imo did not adhere to any of the harbour rules. The devastating explosion could have been averted if harbour patrol had been warned of what the ship was carrying, if the Monte-Blanc had raised a flag warning of its cargo and if the public had been warned of the collision.
If the Halifax harbour patrol had been forewarned about the Monte-Blanc's volatile shipment they could have instructed emergency crews to begin evacuating the city. Emergency crews could have been evacuating the city instead of rushing to the harbour to try and put out the flames. Thirteen vehicles in all, including the newly acquired fire truck, were sent to the blaze . The Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Navy sent crews in small boats to investigate and help .
The Stella Maris tried to douse the flames with its onboard hose, but to no avail . The men who rushed to the scene to try and extinguish the flames died needlessly in the explosion. The firemen could have been helping civilians evacuate the blast radius for the forty-five minutes between the collision and the explosion. Other ships near the mouth of the harbour could have taken on evacuees to aid in the evacuation of the city. The flames from the ship spread to piers and engulfed them. The Monte-Blanc drifted toward Pier 6 setting fire to the pier's wooden pilings .harbour patrol could have had the emergency crews try and evacuate as many people as they could instead of trying to put out the flames aboard the ships.
If the French ship had raised a flag warning others of its cargo, ships that were near it would have taken extra care while manoeuvring around it and given it a wide berth. Also people near the accident would see the flag and be able to warn others. The French crew abandoned ship thinking the ship would blow up. Since they could not speak any English they could not warn anyone of the danger . A flag is universal. With one, anyone who saw it would understand that the Mont Blanc was carrying explosives (almost 3000 tonnes ) and might explode. People stood around the harbour and watched the scene unfold .
If the people around the harbour had known that the Mont Blanc was carrying explosives, they would not have stood around and watched the ships burn. Evacuations would have begun promptly to try and get as many people as far away from the ships as possible. The death tolls would have been reduced as a result of the early evacuations. The final death toll was 1,639 . That number could have been drastically reduced had people been trying to get out of the city.
Had the civilian population known of the munitions ship in their harbour, people would try and get as far away as possible when they heard of the collision. Even without the aid of emergency crews people on foot, horse drawn buggy and automobiles would have been able to get far enough away from the harbour so that they didn't get caught in the blast. People would help others who may have not been able to get away by themselves. They would help the elderly, the disabled and young children. Even though there would be mass panic in the city, it would get the word out that people needed to leave the city as soon as possible.
If people around the harbour and in the city had known of the danger, they would put in effect measures to ensure the minimization of the loss of human life. The Halifax explosion could have been averted if harbour patrol had been warned of what the ship was carrying, if the Monte-Blanc had raised a flag warning of its cargo and if the public had been warned of the collision. Even though the explosion was a horrible experience, it united Canada and improved medical treatment, social welfare, public health care and hospital facilities. Canada's relations with the United States were strengthened because the U.S.A. sent doctors and aid workers to help in the relief work. To this day Nova Scotia sends a special Christmas tree to Boston to thank them for their help in the days after the disaster.