Curse of the NarrowsCurse of the Narrows
by Laura M. MacDonald

I first got really interested in the Halifax Disaster years ago, when we still had the family deli. One of our customers became buddies with my dad, and they used to “chew the fat” together on slow days. One day, the subject drifted to immigration, and Harry started talking about the explosion that devastated Halifax. Harry’s ancestor — (grandfather? grandmother? I’ve forgotten details) — was living in Halifax then, and fortunately escaped the explosion unscathed, but was left out of a job in a city struggling to put itself back together. That’s how they came to the United States, walking over the border somewhere in New England. Out of this whole story, the part that caught my attention was the part I hadn’t known anything about. What was the story with Halifax? What had happened there?

Since then, I’ve gotten the details from articles in history magazines and encyclopedias, and brief references in books about shipwrecks, but not until now have I read an entire book focused on the event. This book begins by describing the Halifax of the WWI years, a center of Atlantic shipping with a bustling port. The fear of German submarines had led the Halifax harbor to close every night, with anti-submarine nets stretched across the entrance to prevent entry or departure until morning.

In December 1916, the French ship Mont Blanc arrived at Halifax from New York, loaded with explosive munitions bound for the war in Europe. She was to wait at Halifax for the convoy that would take her across the ocean. Arriving late in the day, after the nets were in place, the Mont Blanc had to wait outside the harbor until morning. Meanwhile, inside the harbor was the Imo, a Belgian relief ship ready to depart. But loading her coal took longer than expected, and the Imo also missed the window and had to wait for morning.

The next day, when the harbor was again open, both departing and arriving ships rushed to get where they were going. The harbor was also bustling with local ferries, tugboats, barges, and general water traffic. All of this business was regulated by the system of “Rules of the Road”, guided by local pilots, adjusted by a conversational language of ships’ whistles.

The Imo and the Mont Blanc both had local Halifax pilots aboard to guide them through the harbor’s traffic. Exactly who signaled what to whom, and how those signals were interpreted, was a matter of much investigation afterward. The Imo was certainly on the “wrong” side of the channel, strictly speaking. But it seems that in Halifax harbor signals and whistles were subject to flexible interpretation. It was common for one ship to signal an intention, and for another ship to either signal agreement, or to signal a contrary intent, which might then be accepted or rejected in turn by the first ship. The Imo had already been forced to the “wrong” side of the channel by two earlier vessels which had refused to give way to her, and the Imo now in turn refused to give way to the Mont Blanc.

If everyone had known of the Mont Blanc‘s precariously touchy cargo, they might have been readier to give way to her wishes. But the usual red warning flag had not been raised on the Mont Blanc, as that would have made her a sitting duck for enemy subs during her night outside the harbor. So the reason for her reluctance to risk sailing too close to shore, for fear of jolting her explosive cargo, was never obviously apparent to onlookers. When, at the last minute, the Mont Blanc changed course to gain distance from the shoreline, her move seemed like a baffling attempt to cut off the Imo.

After the collision, the ships drifted apart, spinning slowly to opposite sides of the harbor. The Mont Blanc was burning, and the fire was growing hotter and less controllable. Her crew abandoned ship. Onlookers ashore rushed to the harbor to watch as she drifted closer to a downtown pier. Small boats came from around the harbor to try to help, to fight the fire, to tow the burning ship away from the docks. Still nobody was aware of her cargo — except her own fleeing crew, whose warnings couldn’t be heard over the noise and at a distance.

When the Mont Blanc detonated, it was the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen — not surpassed until the atomic age began. In a split-second, it blew in windows for miles, shattering glass into flying shards that blinded anyone watching the scene from a window. It reduced buildings to splinters. A mile and a half of Halifax was instantly turned to rubble. Boats were blown out of the water and smashed. The Mont Blanc was almost entirely vaporized, her anchor landing miles away in one direction, her deck cannon miles in the other direction. About 2000 people were killed, another 6000 wounded.

The suddenness of the disaster stunned people, paralyzed reactions at first. I shake my head thinking of some of the stories. Children walking to school or settling into morning classroom routines, women pausing in their breakfast preparations to stand at the window wondering at the fire, ferryboat passengers on their ways to another ordinary day at work, suddenly — everything stops — and then — the world is all turned upside down in an instant.

The bulk of the book details the individual stories of one and another of the people caught up in the disaster. Waterman Charles Duggan, thrown from his tugboat onto the opposite shore, badly injured, struggling to walk home, only to find his wife and baby dead. Schoolboy Ginger Fraser, who started out to see the excitement as a thrilling break from school, and ended as an energetic helper in the crisis, running messages, making food deliveries, and escorting searchers at the morgue. Public-spirited banker Abraham Ratshetsky and doctor William Ladd, who organized two relief trains from the city of Boston and got them to Halifax through a raging blizzard. Medical student Florence Murray, who had been absent the day the class studied anesthesia, thrown into a chaotic makeshift operating room and told to do her best, trying not to let her uncertainty show, gradually gaining confidence. Nine-year-old Helena Duggan, who dragged herself up out of the basement of her collapsed school and ran home to rescue her mother, three sisters, and younger brother from the ruins of their house. George Cox, a former ocular specialist who had become a simple country doctor, suddenly discovering a use for his expertise in eye surgery, confronted with hundreds of people who had received a faceful of glass shards.

The individual stories fill up the pages of the book, dozens and scores and more. Each person with their own story. Somewhere in all these stories, there must have been Harry’s grandparents, doing something, thinking something, during those hours and days and weeks which eventually brought their feet walking in this direction.