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When the bell calls: The last alarm

In a four-part series, Janice Landry explores Halifax’s firefighting service and her family connection to it. In this edition, she looks at how the Halifax Explosion devastated the city’s firefighters

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The Patricia and crew outside the fire station on West Street, Halifax.

The Patricia and crew outside the fire station on West Street, Halifax.

In a four-part series, journalist Janice Landry looks at Halifax’s firefighters and shares the story of her own father’s heroism.

Between November 2012 to October 2013, Halifax Magazine is sharing a thought-provoking, emotional and detailed series of articles focusing on the professionals and volunteers who respond in the face of danger or even death, during events that cause most to turn and run frantically in the other direction: firefighters.

My late father, Basil (Baz) Landry, was himself a veteran Halifax firefighter and a Canadian Medal of Bravery recipient, for a heroic act he performed, in the line of duty, in Halifax in the late 1970s. In 2013, we’ll look at Baz Landry’s rescue of an infant boy, and the ensuing events that led to him receiving the award at Rideau Hall.

Baz Landry believed that “You go to a fire as a team.” In that spirit, this series focuses on not just his story, but many others. We start with a look at our city’s firefighting history, including the story of the nine firefighters who died in the Halifax Explosion (95 years ago next month).

In 2013, look for three more articles exploring selflessness and personal sacrifice, including frank discussions on the subject of Critical Incident Stress. I’m gathering many first-hand accounts, from many veteran firefighters, in never-before-told interviews.

The four-part series will conclude in fall 2013, 35 years after my father’s heroic act. In that article, I’ll talk to the now-35-year-old man my father saved in 1978. The story includes a lengthy interview with the boy’s mother, who was hysterically screaming for help that October day, as an intense blaze burned out of control, with her two-month-old baby trapped in an upstairs bedroom. She recounts that terrifying and supercharged day to the daughter of the man who saved her child, like it happened yesterday.

9:06 a.m. December 6. Pier 6. The nine of them never saw it coming.

Neither did thousands of others. There was no radio news in 1917. For nine men, it was pure gut reaction and adrenaline kicking in full force when the first siren sounded, cutting the cold, clear December morning air.

Ninety-five years ago, Halifax citizens relied on fire alarm boxes that required a person to physically pull a lever to get a response. Someone—identity still unknown—tugged fire alarm #83 at old Pier 6 on the Halifax waterfront, shortly before 9 a.m.

Fifteen minutes before alarm #83 rang out, the fire had begun on the French munitions freighter, Mont Blanc, which was crammed full of dangerous materials: 250 tons of TNT, 62 tons of gun cotton and other explosive materials. The dangerous cargo was even splayed across its deck, which held 246 tons of benzol in 45-gallon drums. The fire started after Mont Blanc collided with the Belgian relief ship Imo in the Halifax Harbour Narrows. The impact ripped apart the Mont Blanc’s foredeck down to the engine room. It eventually drifted alongside the wooden Pier 6, setting it ablaze. Crowds formed along the Halifax waterfront to watch the spectacle, unaware of the impending disaster.

•••••

Retired veteran Halifax firefighter Don Snider, who served as administrative captain of the former Halifax Fire Department, has become the unofficial Halifax firefighting historian and collector of fire memorabilia. “The alarm box…was located at the corner of Roome Street and Campbell Road [now Barrington Street],” says Snider. “The box would have to be opened and pulled. At the same time, a phone call was made by the owner of a small store, Mr. Constant Upham.” Snider says fires at Pier 6 “were fairly commonplace in 1917” because ships used to load coal at that location. The firefighters would have thought it was a run-of-the-mill call at first.

Vince Coleman, a dispatcher at the Richmond railway station in the North End, was among the first to sense catastrophe. He alerted a comrade in Truro with his eerie but brief report: “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

Moments later came the shattering blast, killing 1,963 men, women and children. Five thousand more were injured in the Halifax Explosion. Among the dead were nine firefighters. It remains the largest, single loss of firefighter life in one incident in Canadian history.

They are: Fire Chief Edward Condon (age 60), Deputy Fire Chief William Brunt (age 41), Captain William Broderick (age 32), Captain Michael Maltus (age unknown), Hoseman John Duggan (age 34), Hoseman Walter Hennessey (age 25), Hoseman Frank Killeen (age 21), Hoseman John Spruin (age 65) and Hoseman Frank Leahy (age 35).

The first eight firefighters named above were all lost at, or near the scene of the explosion, or while en route to Pier 6, when the massive blast occurred. Hoseman Frank Leahy wasn’t immediately killed but later succumbed to extensive injuries.

One firefighter survived: Billy Wells. He bolted to Pier 6 from the West Street Fire Station, where he was stationed as the driver of the department’s new American LaFrance pumper called the Patricia—the first of its kind in Canada. The state-of-the-art rescue vehicle was likely stationed in Halifax because the city had the oldest fire service in Canada.

When alarm #83 sounded, many firefighters and hosemen in Halifax still responded to emergencies on horse-drawn wagons or carts—the case for every firefighter that day, with the exception of Wells and crew in the Patricia, and Chief Condon, who was being driven that day by Deputy Fire Chief William Brunt. Brunt was filling in for Condon’s usual driver, Claude Wells, brother of Billy Wells who fortuitously had the day off. Condon and Brunt raced to the fire scene in the chief’s new McLaughlin Buick roadster. The blast destroyed both vehicles.

This verbatim excerpt is taken from an article that first appeared in the Atlantic Firefighter in November 1992; it is part of the artifacts and vast collection of historian Snider.

Hoseman John Duggan at the Isleville station on Gottingen St. harnessed up #4 hose wagon and was off at full gallop to pier 6. At West St. the patsys (The Patricia) crew, Capt. Wm. Broderick, Walter Hennessey, Frank Kileen and Frank Leahy boarded the engine. One other crewmember could not make the run because of “stomach flu.” He was loudly scolded by Capt. Broderick and told he would be dealt with when they returned. His place was taken by Capt. Michael Maltus and they were off at full speed on what would turn out to be for most of all of them their “last alarm…”

…When Capt. Broderick and his crew arrived at pier 6 they found the Mont Blanc beside the pier and the pier ablaze. The heat was so intense the men had to turn their faces away. #4 hose wagon with John Duggan, arrived at the same time as chief Condon and deputy Brunt. Capt. Broderick informed the chief on the situation. Chief Condon then ordered a line to be run to the pier and had box 83 pulled again for a second alarm.

Back at the Brunswick St. station, John Spruin, a call fireman who lived next door to the station, donned his coat and helmet for the second alarm. Spruin was 65 years old and retired from the HFD. He had a very distinguished career and was a legend, he now worked as a janitor at city hall. But as a call fireman he was able to go on second alarms. He was on the side when the hose wagon sped up Brunswick St. 

After the men stripped the Patricia and the #4 hose wagon they ran the line across the tracks to the pier. Billy Wells was positioning the engine up to the nearest hydrant when the first explosion took place. There was a rambling muffled roar and the ground shook knocking everybody off their feet. Seconds later the Mont Blanc disintegrated in a blinding white flash. The explosion was heard and felt as far away as Cape Breton 225 miles from Halifax.

Eight of the fallen nine died immediately.

The factual accounts of their heroism live on, in some cases by direct descendants who themselves have become firefighters. Hoseman John Duggan has a blood relative who was also a respected Halifax firefighter. Bernie Harvey started in the Halifax Fire Department in 1954. He rose through the ranks and became a platoon chief, eventually retiring after 35 years of service in 1989.

Harvey confirms the history about his famous grandfather. “My mother, Mae (Duggan) Harvey—that was her father, John Duggan,” says Harvey. “John worked out of the Isleville Street station. He drove the hose tender, which had no pump on it or water. Back in those days, they just carried [the] hose with a wagon and a horse. They would go to the scene and get the hose ready for the pumper. The Patricia was the first motorized fire apparatus in Canada. Everybody, including me, thought it was stationed on Isleville Street. But it was on Gottingen Street, in the vicinity of where the former North End Beverage Room used to be. They used to call that area ‘Isleville’ at the time.”

It was Duggan’s final call from Isleville, “I know they never found his body,  mainly because, after the explosion, a tidal wave was created in the harbour and the wave came in and washed his body out to sea, and they never recovered it,” says Harvey.

The impact of the deadly explosion ripped Billy Wells from his seat in the Patricia. When found, he was reportedly sitting up “some distance” from the vehicle with about half of the steering wheel still gripped in his hands. Snider confirms that Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency still owns the part of the steering wheel that was still stuck on the Patricia.

The ensuing tidal wave Harvey describes also carried Wells away; but unlike Duggan, Wells was found, entangled in telephone wires and knocked unconscious. When he awoke, partially clothed and injured, a black rain of unconsumed carbon from the blast fell upon the disaster zone, covering debris, bodies, survivors and Wells, who was eventually rescued, along with Frank Leahy. The two men had arrived on the Patricia. The firefighters were taken to Camp Hill Hospital. Wells stayed for five months but Leahy succumbed to his extensive injuries on December 31, 1917.

A relative of Chief Condon is a former Halifax firefighter himself: Gerry Condon left the Halifax Fire Department in 2006 after 37 years of service. “I’m very proud,” he says. “My great grandfather’s in the history books, in Canada…no, around the world.”

Gerry explains the family history. “His name was Edward Condon,” he says. “His middle name was Francis. My middle name is Francis. My grandfather was Francis Edward and my father was John Francis, and I’m Gerald Francis. That’s the way it went.”

Chief Condon’s daughter (Gerry’s late “Great Aunt Kitty,” whose husband was also in the fire department) had studied at Miss Murphy’s Business College and was the fire department’s bookkeeper at the time of the explosion. In her day, Kitty told Gerry many stories about her late father, Chief Condon, whom she described as “very calm, gentle and relaxed.”  Gerry also says Kitty was very humble about the fact that she was asked to play a larger role in the day-to-day running of the fire department after Condon died. “She basically ran the department for the next year until they named a new chief…and not ever, ever, ever did she say, ‘Oh, I did that,’” says Gerry. “I never told this story a whole bunch.”

Fire chief Ed Condon’s vehicle after the Halifax Explosion. Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

Fire chief Ed Condon’s vehicle after the Halifax Explosion. Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

 

Hoseman John Duggan in front of Isleville Street, Station 4. Photos: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

Hoseman John Duggan in front of Isleville Street, Station 4. Photos: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

 

The Patricia after the Halifax Explosion. Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

The Patricia after the Halifax Explosion. Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

 

Fire Chief Condon and the city comptroller in the chief’s car (a 1911 McLaughlin Buick). Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

Fire Chief Condon and the city comptroller in the chief’s car (a 1911 McLaughlin Buick). Photo: Halifax Firefighters Monument Committee

 

The nine. The Halifax Explosion resulted in the most number of firefighters killed in Canada  in a single incident.

The nine. The Halifax Explosion resulted in the most number of firefighters killed in Canada
in a single incident.

The names, pictures and stories of those fallen nine now hang on the Wall of Honour in Halifax’s Lady Hammond Road fire station. Snider spearheaded the tribute. The names are also engraved on a stone memorial that sits outside that station in the city’s North End.

Snider says the idea of the stone monument came from the son of another retired Halifax firefighter, Dave Singer; the boy got the ball rolling while working on a school project. He asked his father, “Dad, what did the fire department do during the Halifax Explosion?” That one question started the research, which ultimately ended up in Singer, Snider and a band of determined fund-raisers scraping together enough money to pay for Halifax’s permanent reminder of all our firefighters’ ultimate sacrifice.

The Halifax Explosion memorial service on December 6  (in the mid 1990s).

The Halifax Explosion memorial service on December 6
(in the mid 1990s).

 

Each year on December 6, after the annual 9:06 a.m. service at the Needham Bell Tower, people are welcome to join firefighters, their families and loved ones as they gather at the Lady Hammond Road monument. They’ll lay wreaths, a pipe and drum band will play and those gathered will pay respect to the fallen who selflessly answered the bell.

•••••

The oldest fire service in Canadian history

The first Halifax firefighters on record were part of the Union Fire Club dating back to 1754, a mere five years after the founding of the port city. In 1768, the Union Engine Company, the first official fire department in Halifax, was formed, comprised entirely of volunteers. It continued with that name until 1894. When some members started drawing part-time pay, the name changed to the Halifax Fire Department, the precursor to the current Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency. The city’s growth eventually led to the evolution of the department from part-time staff to full-time, fully paid, trained firefighters in 1918.

  • Elaine Wells-Drake

    It should be noted that one of the firefighters in the picture taken of the monument is the great-nephew of the only survivor Billy Wells.

  • mel Birmingham

    Excellent read.

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