The northern seaport city of Halifax, Nova Scotia on the eastern Canadian sea board was recently in the news for the commemorative events surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Halifax was the city of rescue for the Titanic and more than 100 victims from the Titanic are buried there, forever making Halifax a tourist destination for Titanic enthusiasts.
There was a time – at Christmastime, in fact – when Halifax was a city rescued. In happened just five short years after the fateful sailing of the Titanic:
On a crisp December morning in the harbor at Halifax an empty freighter and a French munitions ship – both part of the war effort in Europe where World War I was raging – passed each other in the narrowest part of the harbor. Somehow the two ships collided, sparking a fire about the munitions ship.
Because they were in the narrow part of the harbor, both ships were clearly visible on two shorelines, and in the busy port hundreds of spectators pressed their faces against the glass windows of shops, businesses and homes. While the fire was a spectacle, they had no way of knowing that the ship on fire contained a full cargo hold of explosives.
Within minutes the highly explosive cargo of TNT, picric acid and benzol fuel ignited – sucking more than a cubic mile of air out of the atmosphere and launching a fireball seen miles away. Nothing within 2 miles of the explosion was unaffected. Modern estimates place the force of the blast equivalent to 3 kilotons of TNT, a far cry from the 15 kilotons estimated for the atomic bomb dropped on Japan years later but still significantly large enough to label it the largest man-made explosion in history, up to that time.
The explosion was so large it immediately emptied the harbor completely of all its water, briefly exposing the sea floor for the first time ever. The blast shattered every window within 50 miles and instantly killed 1000 people in the immediate vicinity. As the sky rained down burning pieces of the two ships the water of a mini-tsunami flooded the shoreline for miles around, creating a mess almost impossible to navigate once rescue crews arrived.
To make matters worse, Halifax was under a storm watch and within hours after the blast rescuers had to contend with 16 inches of snow hampering rescue efforts.
It was in this moment of crisis that word spread around the world and the nearest large popular center – Boston, Massachusetts – responded. By 10pm the day of the explosion, a large relief train filled with medical supplies, food, emergency essentials and rescue personnel was on the way, a train that literally had to dig its way through the snow to reach Halifax.
Boston sent train after train in the days leading up to Christmas. In fact, as the cleanup continued they sent Christmas itself to a city population suddenly destitute of means for winter survival. By Christmas 1918 a year later, the trains stopped coming because Halifax was back on its feet – thanks to the continual efforts of the good people and many churches in Boston. In a token of thanks, the city of Halifax in 1918 sent a beautiful, giant Halifax fir to serve as the city of Boston’s Christmas tree – a tradition that continues to this day as both Boston and Halifax remember.
Boston school children turn out in groves
to welcome their Christmas Tree from Nova Scotia.
A wonderful message of compassion and giving.
In the Bleak Midwinter.