Greenhill Park Explosion
A Vancouver man's deathbed statement, made nearly 50 years ago and only revealed more than two decades later, throws new light on one of the great events in the city's history.
If you were here on March 6, 1945, you will remember the waterfront explosion of the 10,000-ton freighter Greenhill Park, easily the most spectacular and disastrous event in the port's history. Eight longshoremen were killed in that explosion, 19 other workers were injured, seven firemen ended up in the hospital and hundreds of windows in downtown Vancouver, some as far west as Thurlow and as far north as Dunsmuir, were blown out. Whole office blocks had scarcely a pane of glass intact.
The war against Japan was in its final stages and a lot of people thought the Japanese had begun to bomb the city.
An investigation into the explosion was conducted by the department of transport and presided over by Mr. Justice Sydney Smith. The names of legal personnel involved
in that investigation are familiar to any Vancouverite: Brigadier Sherwood Lett was counsel for the ship's guards, J.V. Clyne was counsel for six of her officers, John Stanton acted for the International Longshoremen's Union, and Walter Owen for the National Harbors Board.
Mr. Justice Smith's report was released May 12, 1945, two months after the blast. It concluded that the explosion had resulted from "improper stowage of combustible, dangerous and explosive material ... and the ignition thereof by a lighted match."
But that was an educated guess. In such an explosion no match, of course, would ever be found.
But back when I was writing my history column for the Province I got a letter (it was 1980) from a Vancouver reader who thought it was time "the true story was known." The letter read, in part, "This was told to me in confidence by a man I will call Joe, which was not his name, when we were both in hospital in 1957."
Accompanying the letter was a sheet of paper headed, "The True Story of the Fire and Explosion on the S.S. Greenhill Park, March 6, 1945."
I read it and knew I had something. So, in my next column, I asked the man who had sent the letter to call me. He did.
“You'll have to speak up,” he told me. “I'm 91, and I don't hear very well. But I remember very clearly. It was 1957 and Joe and I happened to be in hospital together, both awaiting major operations. He was in there for a gall bladder operation. Well, he must have had some sort of premonition of what was going to happen to him because he told me—in confidence—what had happened that day on the Greenhill Park. Joe was a very quiet man and never mingled with the other patients, and I'm sure he was always too scared to tell this story before. He seemed to feel he could tell me.
“The main cargo of the ship was sodium chlorate but a fair amount of general cargo was loaded, too. And known supposedly to only a few people was included some barrels of liquor. Well, when this was stowed away, a lot of general cargo was stowed in front of it, so it was well hidden. But Joe said it's impossible to keep anything like that secret from longshoremen, and it wasn't long before a narrow passage was cleared back to where the liquor was stowed.
“One by one, the men would come down into that hold to draw off a drink, or fill a bottle to take home in a lunch box. The last man to do so had already had a few drinks and he couldn't see so well down in there. “So he struck a match.” A considerable amount of the liquor had been spilled out of the barrels onto the deck and that narrow passage was full of fumes—so, immediately, there was an explosion. That man was killed instantly. There was only one