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How the largest man-made blast before the atomic bomb led to Michigan’s first hockey team

Nov 6, 2017

“These guys on the ship knew that this was a floating time bomb basically," Bacon said about the ship that led to the explosion that killed 2,000 and "flattened" the town.
Credit John U. Bacon

We're about to mark the 100th anniversary of one of the greatest maritime disasters: the Halifax Explosion, when two ships collided in Halifax Harbour.

The resulting explosion was the biggest man-made blast prior to the atomic bomb. Some 2,000 people were killed, and many thousands more were injured.

Yet, this cataclysmic event is largely forgotten — at least on the U.S. side of our border with Canada.

John U. Bacon, Michigan Radio sports commentator and author, joined Stateside to talk about his new book, “The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism,” where he’s bringing the event back into focus.

“Halifax was the conduit for most everything from North America going to the Great War,” Bacon said about the harbor. He called it “arguably the most crucial port during World War I.”

On that day in 1917, one ship was loaded with some particularly dangerous materials as it pulled into port. Bacon said the crew knew the ship was essentially “a floating time bomb.”

“They had 6 million tons of TNT and other high explosives on the ship. That’s a bad idea. That is 13 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty on one ship,” Bacon said.

The ship bumped into another ship in the harbor.

“It’s not a big bump, but it’s a big enough bump to knock over the airplane fuel on top,” Bacon said. “They had unwittingly constructed the perfect bomb with the fuse on top and the heavy explosives down below.”

With thousands of onlookers drawn by the fire, the ensuing explosion meant sure disaster.

“In one fifteenth of a second, less time than it takes to blink, half of Halifax is gone.” Bacon said. It left 25,000 homeless, 9,000 wounded, and 2,000 dead in a split second. “It was one-fifth the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”

In the aftermath, Bacon describes the town as being “flattened” and the survivors “bewildered.” People were blinded and disfigured, drowned in the ensuing tidal wave, and 600 were never even accounted for.

Despite all that, Bacon said that the Halifax residents “remember the human kindness as much as anything else.”

Help for the citizens came from all over, and the aid that survivors needed after the explosion also advanced medical understanding.

“The father of pediatric surgery is Dr. Ladd and he learned it in Halifax,” Bacon said.

That medical response even has a Michigan connection.

“It turns out Michigan’s first hockey coach happens to have been a first responder, if you will, to the Halifax explosion, and that’s what inspired him to become a doctor, go to U of M, and start Michigan’s hockey program.”

Listen above for the full conversation on the book and the 1917 explosion. 

Bacon will be doing a book signing at Rackham Auditorium at the University of Michigan on November 7. Click here to learn more.

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