Ottawa Citizen

`Canada's luckiest man' dead at 104

Snair survived Halifax Explosion, Almonte train wreck, cancer and more


Although not for lack of trying, death had to wait almost 105 years to finally claim Doug Snair, who was hailed during his lifetime as “Canada's luckiest man.”

Snair, one of the last known survivors of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, died at Hospice Renfrew on April 10.

He was 104.

In addition to emerging mostly unharmed from the wartime munitions blast that devastated Halifax, Snair walked away from one of the worst train accidents in Canadian history: the 1942 Almonte train wreck that killed 39 people.

In his 50s, he survived a bout with cancer; in his 60s, a highway crash; and as a centenaria­n, most of his second pandemic.

He once told an interviewe­r he didn't believe God played any role in his repeated acts of survival.

“No, it's just something that happened and I happened to be there,” Snair explained. “I've just been in the right place at the wrong time.”

Carol Theriault said her father died peacefully from the effects of pneumonia.

“He was a very calm person: He took everything in stride,” she said.

Douglas Snair was born May 17, 1916, in Halifax, where his father, Walter, worked as a telegraph operator.

Walter should have been in his office near Halifax Harbour on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, but was instead safe in a dentist's chair when an outbound Norwegian steamship, the Imo, collided with an inbound French munitions ship, the Mont-Blanc, setting it aflame.

Packed with high explosives, the Mont-Blanc detonated about 20 minutes later, at 9:04 a.m. The resulting blast levelled 2.5 square kilometres of the port city's north end and unleashed a tsunami that raced across the harbour.

Then a toddler, Doug Snair was standing behind his mother, Marion, as she bathed his infant sister when the blast wave hit their home on Louisburg Street, near Citadel Hill. Glass shards shot through the room.

Snair received cuts to his head that would permanentl­y mark him as a survivor of the Halifax Explosion. His mother bore the brunt of the blast with serious wounds to her back.

Snair had no memory of the event, but heard the story so often that he could recount it like an eyewitness.

The explosion killed 2,000 people and left 6,000 more homeless. The Snairs' home was so badly damaged that they were forced to move in with relatives outside the city.

The family later settled in Kemptville, N.S., where Snair spent much of his childhood. He set his sights on becoming a doctor and graduated with a science degree from Acadia University in May 1939. But, with war looming in Europe, Snair enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and trained to become an officer.

In the summer of 1942, SubLieut. Snair was an assistant paymaster in Ottawa, where he met and fell in love with air force secretary Thyra Shore of Renfrew.

On Dec. 27, 1942, they boarded a passenger train in Renfrew for the return journey to Ottawa after spending Christmas with Shore's parents. The train, which had originated in Petawawa, was crowded with holiday travellers. The couple moved through the coaches, looking for a seat. One seat was open in the third-to-last coach, but another woman said she was saving it for a friend.

The couple searched in the last two coaches, but they, too, were jammed, so they returned to see if the woman's friend had appeared.

“I asked the lady again, `Could we have that seat?'” Snair once recalled. “And she said, `Yes.'”

The answer might well have saved their lives.

Half an hour later, as the train was stopped in Almonte to take on more passengers, a heavy transport train carrying soldiers slammed into it from behind.

The transport train exploded through the last two wooden coach cars and finally came to a stop halfway through the third coach, where Snair was sitting with his future wife.

“I remember hitting the floor and something falling on top of me — it was the seat behind — but what I remember most was the big yellow headlight of the troop train,” he told the Citizen on the 75th anniversar­y of the crash.

Four people sitting across the aisle from them were among the 39 who died from injuries received in the crash.

Snair and Shore walked away unharmed; only his watch face was scratched. The lucky couple married five months later.

In 1944, Snair's fate turned on a job applicatio­n. He was, by then, desperate to serve overseas, and when a purser's job came open on HMCS Athabaskan, he and a colleague applied. His friend received the commission on the destroyer, but was killed months later when the Athabaskan was torpedoed and sunk by German forces off the coast of France. Most of the ship's crew — 183 men — were lost.

After the war, Snair studied physiology at the University of Toronto, where he worked with Dr. Charles Best, the co-discoverer of insulin, on an examinatio­n of the pituitary gland.

Recruited to the civil service, Snair spent the next 30 years as a federal government chemist, testing new pharmaceut­ical products before they went on the market.

He spent most of his adult life in Ottawa, but moved to Arnprior in 2010, a decade after his wife died, to be closer to their only child, Carol Theriault, and her family.

Theriault said her father loved science, books, brass bands and spending time at his cottage on Lake Doré, near Pembroke.

He had successful hip surgery at 97, she said, and four years later attended the official ceremonies in Halifax to mark the 100th anniversar­y of the catastroph­ic explosion.

He was one of the only people still alive who bore scars of that day. A Maclean's magazine profile at the time called him “Canada's luckiest man.”

 ?? BRUCE DEACHMAN FILES ?? Doug Snair cheated death many times, including walking away from the Halifax Explosion and the Almonte train wreck.
BRUCE DEACHMAN FILES Doug Snair cheated death many times, including walking away from the Halifax Explosion and the Almonte train wreck.

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