The Halifax Explosion: 33 Photos Of History’s Worst Explosion Before Nuclear Weapons
“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode.”
These were the last words of Vince Coleman, the train dispatcher who met his end on December 6, 1917 in the Halifax Explosion. Seconds later, the ship would explode and set off the 3,000 tons of explosives inside. It would be the biggest and most devastating explosion in history until the invention of the nuclear bomb.
The Halifax Explosion started when two ships collided in the harbor of the Nova Scotian capital of Halifax. A Norwegian ship, the SS Imo, had slammed into the SS Mont-Blanc, a French ship filled to the brim with TNT, picric acid, benezole, and guncotton.
The collision cracked open the barrel of benezole, dousing the ship in flammable chemicals. Then the SS Imo’s engine kicked in, setting off a spark that would kill thousands.
All 3,000 tons of explosives then went off at once, burning with a heat of more than 9,000 °F. In seconds, the flames eviscerated every building in a half-mile radius, while a brutal shockwave tore through the rest of the city, traveling more than half a mile per second and shaking the city to its bones.
The inferno tore through Halifax, burning so bright that some were blinded just from looking at the light of the explosion. Others were trapped inside their homes by the roaring fires around them. They had no way to escape from the smoke that slowly choked them and the flames that left nothing but ashes in their wake.
“The sight was awful,” one witness said. “People hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”
By the end, the Halifax Explosion had ended 2,000 lives and seriously injured at least 9,000 more.
As horrible as it was, though, it would have been worse if it wasn’t for that one final message from Vince Coleman. He stayed at his post to make sure the train bound for the harbor wouldn’t come in. He gave up his chance for one last mad dash for survival to save the lives of the 300 people on board that train.
“Guess this will be my last message,” Coleman said as he watched the flames burn through the hull of the SS Mont-Blanc. “Good-bye boys.”