Died doing his duty

John Ronayne was the only reporter to die covering the Halifax Explosion. But there’s more to his story than that

Editor’s Note: In his 2017 book Bearing Witness (Fernwood Publishing), author Michael Dupuis looked at the role of journalists and record keepers in documenting the effects of the Halifax Explosion.

Following the centenary anniversary commemoration of the Halifax Explosion last year, I believed my story in Bearing Witness about Chronicle reporter John Ronayne and his tragic death in the line of duty was complete.

I was mistaken.

Born Aug. 26, 1894 John ‘Jack’ Ronayne was raised and educated in Halifax, and in his early 20s became the Morning Chronicle and Daily Echo marine reporter. According to the Chronicle’s editor, Ronayne was a young man of “splendid promise, of sterling worth, and high character.” He “endeared himself to all his associates by his unfailing courtesy and kindness, his enthusiasm for his work, his fine ideals and his clean living.”

In December 1917, Ronayne lived at 34 North Street with his mother Elizabeth (48) and siblings Martha (24), Dorothy (15), Leo (13) and Francis (10). His older sister Marjorie (28) had married in July 1915 and was living nearby with her husband Oscar Cossette, who would become a rear admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy. Ronayne’s father Ambrose had died in April 1916; John remained home as the eldest unmarried male.

Due to a series of miscommunications and navigational decisions by people on both ships, at approximately 8:45 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917, the Belgian relief ship Imo collided with Mont-Blanc in the Narrows. Fire soon erupted on the munitions-loaded vessel. Fearing the deadly cargo of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzol would explode, the captain, crew and pilot abandoned the Mont-Blanc. Unmanned, the burning ship drifted to the Halifax side of the harbour, coming aground at Pier 6 and setting the wooden structure on fire.

As he was preparing to leave North Street for work at the Chronicle building on Granville Street, Ronayne saw smoke rising over the harbour in the North End. Sensing a story, he phoned his editor and got permission to investigate before reporting to the office. Accompanied by Martha’s boyfriend, Roger Amirault, Ronayne was soon on his way to Pier 6. To cover this distance, they needed to walk/run, take the Barrington tram, or hitch a ride with a passing automobile.

As Mont-Blanc continued to blaze on the waterfront, Ronayne proceeded on Barrington until he encountered Constant Upham near Hanover Street (between Devonshire Road and Barrington Street, on the harbour side of Fort Needham). Upham owned a grocery store less than 300 metres from Pier 6 and had called the fire department. Following a brief conversation with Upham, Ronayne continued up Barrington to he railway foot bridge spanning the tracks from the foot of Duffus Street to the head of Pier 7.

He reached the bridge at approximately 9 a.m. Some 150 excited men, women and children lined it. They were watching the spectacle of the burning Mont-Blanc, less than 300 metres away at Pier 6, as it periodically shot bursting barrels of benzol skywards. Ronayne crossed over the overhead bridge and was approaching Pier 6 when at 9:04:35 the Mont-Blanc suddenly and spectacularly exploded.

The 2.9-kiloton blast scythed down the onlookers on the railway, wrenching the heavy steel structure from its concrete abutment and spilling it sideways onto the railway tracks. The blast caught Ronayne full force, hurling him back towards Barrington. Amirault, who had miraculously escaped the concussion wave without a scratch, found him “in the road, moaning, half his face as if scalded with steam.”

Fatally injured, Ronayne soon died, with the official cause of death listed in the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book as “shock, due to injuries.” Later in the day, workers brought his body to the Infirmary where first his mother and then Chronicle colleague Mary ‘May’ O’Regan (who was there to get a list of the injured) identified him.

Two days later the Chronicle eulogized Ronayne under the headline “Died Doing His Duty.” In part the story read “Mr. Ronayne met his death in the willing attention to the duties that characterized his brief career. The Chronicle and Echo, along with innumerable friends, tender their sincere sympathy to his family in their sad loss. Mr. Ronayne was only in the first flush of young manhood, nevertheless his death is a distinct loss to the City as well as to the newspaper profession.’

On Dec. 12, they laid Ronayne to rest alongside his father in Mount Olivet Cemetery (Section 2 Plot T Grave 51), although no gravestone for him is visible at the plot.

And this is where I thought this story ended.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 2017, I was on CBC Radio’s The Current. Following my conversation with host Anna Maria Tremonti, Julie Maloney, a former CBC broadcaster, contacted me to explain she was John Ronayne’s great niece. As a result of our initial discussion and follow up emails, Julie was able to complete her great-uncle’s story.

First, she found and sent images of John Ronayne. One photograph showed him standing beside Martha at Marjorie’s wedding on July 5, 1915 to Oscar Cossette at Halifax’s St. Patrick’s Church. Another group photo from the same year also featured him with Martha, Marjorie, and Oscar.

Julie also solved the mystery of John Ronayne’s missing gravestone. I had visited the Ronayne family plot in Mount Olivet in December 2013 and found the headstone for John’s father Ambrose. However, though I knew John was buried alongside his father, I could find neither stone nor inscription for him.

“It is true that there is a family gravestone and Jack’s name and details are there but his side of the stone is badly defaced,” she explains. “With a great deal of difficulty, you can make out his name. It made me sad to see it looking so eroded. Jack deserved better.”

As proof Julie sent me an image of the inscription on John’s side of his father’s stone. It reads “J.M. RONAYNE DIED DEC. 6 1917.”

Finally, Julie provided an insight into John’s importance to the Ronayne family. She shares what her grandmother, Marjorie, had said about him. “Jack was adored by his family; he was handsome, smart, kind and full of life. Everyone loved Jack.”

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