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One hundred years after the Halifax explosion, what have we learned?

One hundred years later, we are still playing chicken with peoples’ lives.

During the first world war, Halifax Harbour was busy as a staging area for transatlantic convoys. One hundred years ago today, a French cargo ship, the Mont-Blanc was carrying TNT, picric acid and benzine. The pilot saw the Norwegian ship, the Imo, coming toward it but the Imo wouldn’t yield right of way. They finally both cut their engines but at 8:45 AM had a minor, grazing collision that wouldn’t have normally caused much damage.

before the explosionNova Scotia archives/ Halifax before the explosion/Public Domain

But a few barrels of benzine toppled open. When the Imo reversed engines to disengage, it created sparks which ignited the benzine. The crew abandoned ship, and the people of Halifax gathered to watch the fire.

Cloud from explosionNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

At 9:04 the Mont-Blanc blew up. According to Wikipedia,

The ship was completely blown apart and a powerful blast wave radiated away from the explosion at more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) per second. Temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,000 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion. White-hot shards of iron fell down upon Halifax and Dartmouth. Mont-Blanc’s forward 90 mm gun, its barrel melted away, landed approximately 5.6 kilometres (3.5 mi) north of the explosion site.

Halifax after explosionNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

1600 people were killed instantly and another 400 died from their injuries. Thousands were injured, including hundreds who were blinded by flying glass because they were watching the fire from the windows inside their houses before the explosion.

It was the largest man-made explosion in history until the atomic bomb was dropped.

brewerey blown upNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

So what have we learned? Remarkably, not much. Even though the explosion was caused by navigation errors, both Captains got acquitted, much as happens today after explosions like the Deepwater Horizon or the Exxon Valdez or 99 percent of car crashes.

a church after explosionNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

Writing in the Globe and mail, Kevin Quigley wonders if “One hundred years later we might ask, are we safer today from an accidental explosion of dangerous chemicals? The answer is yes, but important weaknesses remain….The increased presence of dangerous chemicals and urbanization are a toxic mix, because accidents happen.”

houses blown apartNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

Today, We have trains full of explosive chemicals running through the middle of cities; trains are carrying explosive crude oil across Canada and the US, leading to disasters like the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster of 2013. In China, 193 people were killed in 2015 in the Tianjin explosion. In Houston this year, a chemical plant blew up during Hurricane Harvey.

halifax digNova Scotia Archives/Public Domain

All over the world, increasing population densities in cities are bringing people closer and closer to dangerous chemical facilities. According to Greenpeace, which produces a map showing risks to Americans,

One in three Americans is at risk of a poison gas disaster by living near one of hundreds of chemical facilities that store and use highly toxic chemicals. A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning. Of the 12,440 chemical facilities that report their chemical disaster scenarios to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Greenpeace has identified 473 chemical facilities across the U.S. that each put 100,000 people or more at risk. Of those, 89 put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant.

We have to stop stupid.

Imo agroundNova Scotia Archives/ The Imo, which was blown ashore/Public Domain

We have written before about how 31,000 Americans died on the roads last year because of stupid– drunk, unbuckled or speeding. In Halifax 100 years ago, thousands were killed or injured because of stupid-

[The harbour pilot Mackey] first spotted Imo when she was about 0.75 miles (1.21 km) away and became concerned as her path appeared to be heading towards his ship’s starboard side, as if to cut him off his own course. Mackey gave a short blast of his ship’s signal whistle to indicate that he had the right of way, but was met with two short blasts from Imo, indicating that the approaching vessel would not yield its position. The captain ordered Mont-Blanc to halt her engines and angle slightly to starboard, closer to the Dartmouth side of the Narrows. He let out another single blast of his whistle, hoping the other vessel would likewise move to starboard, but was again met with a double-blast in negation.

A hundred years later, we are still playing chicken with peoples lives. That should be the lesson of Halifax: It is time to stop it.

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