A dif­fer­ent re­flec­tion now

With sur­vivors’ voices silent, the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion is now a sec­ond-hand story

The Beacon Herald - - NATIONAL NEWS - AL­I­SON AULD

HAL­I­FAX — As peo­ple gather to mark the an­niver­sary of one of Canada’s worst hu­man-made dis­as­ters, largely ab­sent will be those who sur­vived its fury.

It was 101 years ago Thurs­day that two wartime ships col­lided in Hal­i­fax har­bour, spark­ing a fiery blast that oblit­er­ated a large sec­tion of the water­front city and killed al­most 2,000 peo­ple.

A ser­vice at Fort Need­ham Me­mo­rial Park in the city’s north end will in­clude a mo­ment of si­lence at 9:04 a.m. — the ex­act mo­ment the re­lief ship Imo struck the French mu­ni­tions ship, Mont Blanc, on Dec. 6, 1917.

The park’s me­mo­rial bells will ring out and pray­ers will be said, but ex­perts who have stud­ied the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion say the voices of its sur­vivors are no longer able to tell the sto­ries of the dis­as­ter that maimed 9,000, dis­fig­ured a city and re­ver­ber­ated through­out the re­gion.

“Sur­vivors and their mem­o­ries were such an im­por­tant part of the way the ex­plo­sion was re­dis­cov­ered in the 1980s when peo­ple started talk­ing about it, hav­ing said very lit­tle for decades,” said Dan Con­lin, cu­ra­tor of Pier 21’s Cana­dian Mu­seum of Im­mi­gra­tion and a lead­ing ex­pert on the ex­plo­sion.

“Now that we have lost them, the re­flec­tion on the ex­pe­ri­ence will dif­fer.”

It’s not clear how many, if any, of those who sur­vived the pow­er­ful blast are left.

Janet Kitz, who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the ex­plo­sion and met many sur­vivors through her re­search, says she hasn’t heard from any of them in the last sev­eral years and doubts any are still alive.

The au­thor of sev­eral books, in­clud­ing Shat­tered City and Sur­vivors: Chil­dren of the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion, said sur­vivors who once shared their sto­ries of what hap­pened that fate­ful day have been fad­ing from pub­lic view over the years due to their ad­vanc­ing age.

Gla­dys Hazel For­rest, one of the ex­plo­sion’s last sur­vivors, died last March at the age of 106. For­rest was six years old when the ships col­lided, some­thing she later said tore off the side of the house and sent her tum­bling from the top floor down into her un­cle’s arms as the wall and the stairs had been blown off. Her baby brother was found across the street.

But Kitz says many of their mem­o­ries have been recorded in books and in the talks they used to give to stu­dents.

“I would go to schools quite a bit and I would take some of them with me,” she said. “At one time, the Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion wasn’t even part of the his­tory syl­labus …

“This was an im­por­tant part of the city — it changed the city. The whole of the north end was changed as a re­sult of it.”

De­spite the qui­et­ing of those voices, there are new ef­forts to cap­ture the sto­ries of those lost in the blast, which also left 25,000 peo­ple home­less.

Claire Hal­stead, a post­doc­toral fel­low at Saint Mary’s Univer­sity in Hal­i­fax, is build­ing a data­base on ex­plo­sion vic­tims that pro­vides ev­ery­thing from their ad­dress, age and oc­cu­pa­tion to their re­li­gion and cause of death.

She says the data­base dif­fers from the ex­ist­ing Hal­i­fax Ex­plo­sion Book of Re­mem­brance in giv­ing a broader sense of who died and where they came from.

“I wanted the data­base to be able to tell us things like how many chil­dren died, where peo­ple lived, how they died and how long after the ex­plo­sion they died,” she said in an email about the project, dubbed HExD.

“(It) seeks to tell the sto­ries of in­di­vid­u­als who lost their lives along­side some mean­ing­ful num­bers and statis­tics.”

Hal­stead said the data­base al­lows peo­ple to look up a street and see how many peo­ple died there and in which houses.

As a re­sult, she said she’s de­ter­mined that 18 per cent of the vic­tims lived on Bar­ring­ton Street.

Hal­stead said she’s also found lit­tle-known sto­ries of peo­ple like Paul Morse Dea­con, who died of whoop­ing cough and con­vul­sions on Jan. 23, 1918, at just seven weeks of age.

“He was likely born — pos­si­bly pre­ma­turely — as a re­sult of the ex­plo­sion,” she said.

NA­TIONAL AR­CHIVES OF CANADA HANDOUT

The af­ter­math of an ex­plo­sion after two wartime ships col­lided in the har­bour in Hal­i­fax is seen on Dec. 6, 1917. As peo­ple gather to mark the an­niver­sary of one of Canada’s worst hu­man-made dis­as­ters, largely ab­sent will be those who sur­vived its fury. It was 101 years ago Thurs­day that two wartime ships col­lided in Hal­i­fax har­bour, spark­ing a fiery blast that oblit­er­ated a large sec­tion of the water­front city and killed al­most 2,000 peo­ple.

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