The white mushroom cloud hung over the city for more than an hour. It could be seen from miles away. Everything on the harbor side of Needham Hill was totally destroyed; everything on the back side was severely damaged. The blast broke windows and shook homes more than 100 miles away. War had come to Canada.
In 1917, World War I was raging in Europe. Many sailors and soldiers from Canada, the United States, and Britain were gathered in the busy seaport of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The second largest natural harbor in the world, Halifax Harbor was ice-free as usual that December day. Ships came and left constantly, ferrying fighting men and materiel across the Atlantic to Europe.
On the morning of 6 December 1917, the French merchant ship Mont Blanc approached Halifax Harbor from New York, her hold filled with an explosive cargo of 2,300 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton, and 35 tons of benzol gasoline-munitions desperately needed in Europe. As she was pulling into port, the Belgian relief ship lmo was leaving Halifax on her way to New York to pick up supplies. No one knows why the two ships collided, but when they did, the lmo ripped a hole in the Mont Blanc's side. Flames soon covered the doomed ship. The Mont Blanc's crew fled in lifeboats, trying to reach safety on the opposite shore.
Adults and children gathered near Pier Six to watch the Mont Blanc burn. Black smoke billowed out, choking the air. The inferno drifted closer to the pier, closer to the homes and to the people. Suddenly, the ship detonated with the force of the greatest man-made explosion before the creation of the atomic bomb. Tornado-like winds hurled spectators through the air like rag dolls. Concrete buildings and factories were crushed to dust. Wooden homes were pounded into matchsticks. Shards of wood, glass, and concrete shot in all directions like miniature missiles. Blue India ink (also part of the Mont Blanc's cargo) tattooed itself deeply into the skin of those people closest to the blast, turning them deep blue. The harbor roared up in a tidal wave and crashed down, sweeping away part of the debris.
About one-quarter of the city was destroyed. Almost 2,000 people died, and roughly 10,000 were injured. More than 20,000 people were left homeless.
Help was summoned immediately. Many more residents probably would have died had it not been for those who came to Halifax's aid. Worldwide contributions came in the form of medicine, food, clothing, supplies, and money-some of it from as far away as Australia. The people of Massachusetts, however, responded quickest and contributed the most to the relief effort.
The next morning, help began arriving by train. Unfortunately, the train tracks into the city had become twisted scraps of metal. Rescuers had to reach the victims on foot, walking miles to get to the worst of the devastation. To compound matters, a heavy blanket of snow had fallen overnight. People huddled in tents set up in the military commons areas with little or no warm clothing. Digging through the snow and rubble to find survivors became harder and harder. Exhausted medical personnel struggled for days without food or sleep. Schools were converted to emergency rooms and morgues. Desperate people searched among the bodies and injured, looking for family members.
It is impossible to repay the kindness and generosity shown by those who unselfishly responded to this emergency. Nevertheless, Nova Scotians try.
Since 1975, a very special Christmas tree has been sent each year to illuminate Boston. Nova Scotia Christmas tree growers compete to determine who will donate the huge "remembrance" tree. Once selected, the tree is cut down and shipped to Boston by volunteers.
The massive tree, more than 50 feet tall, is erected and has more than 18,000 lights woven through its branches. The tree lighting, held on Boston Common on the first Saturday in December, heralds the start of the holiday season for many. On that day, more than 40,000 spectators gather, tense with anticipation and excitement, to wait for the explosion of light. As darkness deepens, the massive monument suddenly bursts into color. Laughter and music fill the air; the celebration of life begins.
This tree is an expression of profound gratitude to those who helped save a city in need. But it is also a memorial to the people who died and a tribute to those who survived that terrible day when the war came to Canada.
Ms. Perrin is a freelance writer living in Halifax. She has published several articles in the United States and Canada. Ms. Perrin's grandparents both survived the explosion in 1917. Her grandmother was one of the many children who lost their sight but owe their lives to the people of Boston.