Greenhill Park Ex­plo­sion

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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

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