Two notable events in Canadian history both occurred on December 6, 72 years apart.
Thanks to Heritage Minutes, lots of us can recite the basic facts of the Halifax Harbour Explosion:
2000 dead, 9000 injured, 25,000 homeless.
“The loudest sound ever heard on Earth,” they used to say, “except for Krakatoa.”
The blast shattered windows in Truro, 100 km away, and was heard in Prince Edward Island. The crew of the fishing boat Wave, working off the coast of Massachusetts, even claimed to have heard the boom rumbling across the ocean.
And: “The loudest man-made sound until Hiroshima.”
(Although I see we are now meant to say “human-made”…)
An evaluation of the explosion’s force puts it at 2.9 kilotons of TNT (12 TJ). Halifax historian Jay White in 1994 concluded “Halifax Harbour remains unchallenged in overall magnitude as long as five criteria are considered together: number of casualties, force of blast, radius of devastation, quantity of explosive material, and total value of property destroyed.”
The Mont-Blanc exploded at 9:04:35 a.m., sending out a shock wave in all directions, followed by a tsunami that washed violently over the Halifax and Dartmouth shores.
More than 2.5 square km of Richmond were totally levelled, either by the blast, the tsunami, or the structure fires caused when buildings collapsed inward on lanterns, stoves and furnaces…
The blast shot vaporized sections of the Mont-Blanc upwards in a great fireball. The large shank of the ship’s anchor was sent flying across the city and over the Northwest Arm, nearly 4 km away (where it remains to this day).
The Imo was tossed like a toy onto the Dartmouth shoreline.
Meanwhile, burning metal fragments of Mont-Blanc showered down on Halifax, along with a black rain of carbon particles…
People were also blown through the sky. Where and how they landed largely determined whether they lived or died. Charles Mayers, third officer of the vessel Middleham Castle, was picked up and dropped nearly 1 km from his ship, landing atop Fort Needham Hill in Richmond. “I was wet when I came down,” Mayers said. “I had no clothes on when I came to, except my boots. There was a little girl near me and I asked her where we were…”
About 1,600 people died instantly, including hundreds of children. Roughly 400 more died from their injuries in the days that followed.
The explosion and its flying debris decapitated some, took the limbs from others, and left many with burns, fractures and open wounds…
I’ve written about the Montreal Massacre since it happened in 1989. My contemporaneous piece, for the Catholic newspaper I was working for at the time, is probably in my files somewhere.
As the years passed, I thought and wrote more about the event (granted, up here it is difficult not to) which I took to calling Never Hear the End of It Day.
The Montreal Massacre was, predictably, used to tighten Canada’s already tight firearm ownership laws.
Try explaining to these people that the Montreal Massacre is one of the reasons this particular female knows she needs a gun…
My thinking and writing was significantly influenced by Mark Steyn, who was the first to point out that the gunman, who we were all immediately instructed to call “Mark Lepine” (white, pure laine, Quebec-Catholic sounding) was in fact a Muslim named Gamil Gharbi.
Steyn graciously quoted my evolving attitude on the matter in his 2009 Maclean’s column, “Excusing the Men Who Ran Away”:
Whenever I write about this issue, I get a lot of emails from guys scoffing, “Oh, right, Steyn. Like you’d be taking a bullet. You’d be pissing your little girlie panties,” etc. Well, maybe I would. But as the Toronto blogger Kathy Shaidle put it:
“When we say ‘we don’t know what we’d do under the same circumstances,’ we make cowardice the default position.”
I prefer the word passivity—a terrible, corrosive, enervating passivity. Even if I’m wetting my panties, it’s better to have the social norm of the Titanic and fail to live up to it than to have the social norm of the Polytechnique and sink with it. M Villeneuve dedicates his film not just to the 14 women who died that day but also to Sarto Blais, a young man at the Polytechnique who hanged himself eight months later. Consciously or not, the director understands what the heart of this story is: not the choice of one man, deformed and freakish, but the choice of all the others, the nice and normal ones. He shows us the men walking out twice—first, in real time, as it were; later, Rashômon-style, from the point of view of the women, in the final moments of their lives.
Of course, the Halifax Explosion was an accident.
The Montreal Massacre was intentional.
It was (doubly) man-made. (Don’t dare say “human” THIS time, say literally the same individuals who otherwise insist upon the use of that awkward appellation…)
And that alchemy of accident and intent transforms lower body counts into mass(acre) casualties, and puny .223 calibre rounds into dynamite, into a sound that still echoes.
Back to Heritage Minutes.
Coleman was a man who didn’t run away.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, being the Canadian Encyclopedia, insists upon telling us:
The Saint John train was ultimately saved, not because of Coleman’s message, but because it was running late…
And how and where we land.