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Maritime Disasters: Mont Blanc

April 12th, 2016 by Piper Smith

On December 6, 1917, in Nova Scotia’s busy Halifax Harbor, the Mont Blanc, a French ship loaded with explosives and headed for Europe, where WWI raged, collided with the Imo, which was traveling to New York to pick up relief supplies for war-ravaged Belgium. After the collision, fire broke out on the Mont Blanc, which soon ran aground on the Halifax waterfront, where a crowd had gathered to watch the burning ship. About 20 minutes after the collision, the fire ignited the 2,925 tons of explosives the Mont Blanc was transporting and sparked a massive blast. (The force of the blast was so great that physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, referred to as “the father of the atomic bomb,” later studied the event in order to estimate the potential damage of the nuclear weapons he was helping to develop.)

The blast killed scores of people instantly and devastated the surrounding area, toppling buildings, setting entire blocks ablaze and triggering a tsunami. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that a blizzard struck the region that night, hampering rescue and relief efforts. More than 2,000 people died as a result of what became known as the Halifax Explosion—the largest man-made blast until the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945– while more than 6,000 others were injured and some 9,000 people were left homeless.