Relief Response to Manmade Disaster Topic of Exhibit at the U.Va. Health Sciences Library

February 05, 2009

February 5, 2009 — What was the largest man-made, accidental disaster in history?

Hint: It was not the levees breaking outside New Orleans.

It occurred in 1917 when a ship blew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

On a cold December morning, as World War I raged across the Atlantic, a munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, quietly slipped into the Halifax harbor, loaded with explosives. The Imo, a Norwegian cargo ship leaving the harbor, didn't have enough time or space to avoid impact and collided with the other vessel. The Mont Blanc caught fire.

As the burning Mont Blanc drifted toward the coastal city, telegraph operator Vincent Coleman tapped out the news of doom and "good bye." Then he was gone.

At 9:05 a.m., almost 3,000 tons of munitions vaporized the Mont Blanc. By the next moment:

• More than 1,600 people were dead or soon died

• Thousands of people were injured, including hundreds suffering eye injuries when windows shattered

• At least 9,000 people (15 percent of the city's population) were left homeless

• Two square miles of Halifax were destroyed.

Then a 20-foot tsunami created by the explosion swept through the damaged areas, scouring the land and leaving bare mud piled with debris.

That night, a blizzard hit the region, bringing gale force winds and temperatures of 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. A blanket of snow soon hid the victims, hindered the rescuers and halted relief trains.

An exhibit, "Between One Minute and the Next: The Halifax Explosion," on display in the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library until mid-March, focuses on disaster medicine as told in the story of this early 20th-century catastrophe.

The disaster was the world's largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb and is still the world's largest accidental one, said Addeane Caelleigh, curator of the exhibit.

Despite the cascade of devastating events, relief efforts were remarkably successful for the era, according to Caelleigh. The United States responded within hours, especially the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety, the state of Maine and the American Red Cross. Relief trains finally got through the snow, carrying medical supplies, doctors, nurses and, from Harvard, even an emergency hospital intended for the front. The military who were stationed in Halifax set up soup kitchens and tent cities.

Relief workers heard a child whimpering in the wreckage and found her hiding under an iron stove that had protected her from flying metal and glass. The toddler, identified as Annie Liggins, became known as "Ashpan Annie."

Lessons learned from another disaster five years earlier, the sinking of the Titanic, provided a method for setting up an emergency morgue and identifying victims.

The Halifax Explosion exhibit is part of the "Reflection" series, a joint project of the Medical School and Historical Collections and Services in the Health Sciences Library begun in 2007-08. It explores different historical themes relating health and medicine to society and culture, said Caelleigh, who is also curator of the series. Exhibits are displayed in the library for six weeks.

Web versions of the exhibits are permanent and more extensive, she said. Past exhibits are online.

— By Anne Bromley