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Bearing witness to the Halifax Explosion

In his new book, Michael Dupuis offers a different perspective on the Halifax Explosion and its aftermath

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Among those who experienced the 1917 Halifax Explosion and survived was 48-year-old Canadian Press Halifax bureau superintendent James Hickey, also news editor of the Morning Chronicle and Halifax correspondent for the New York Times. When the Explosion happened, he was at his office in the Chronicle building on Granville Street, about three kilometers from Ground Zero. From contemporary newspaper accounts, Michael Dupuis provides a description of Hickey’s first 30 minutes following the Explosion, his initial news bulletin, and part of a follow-up story he wired later that day.

As this year marks the centenary of the Explosion, Halifax Magazine is presenting stories throughout the year offering new perspectives on the tragedy. Read on for excerpts from his book Bearing Witness, reprinted with permission from Fernwood Publishing. The following is from Chapter 2, “Journalists and Record Keepers Who Experienced the Explosion Firsthand.”

The following account of Hickey’s experience in the first thirty minutes following the Explosion demonstrated his remarkable journalistic instincts. The story appeared in the Royal Gazette (Hamilton, Bermuda) on March 14, 1918 under the headline How The News Was Sent From Halifax.

How the news was sent from Halifax

The explosion on the French munition ship Mont Blanc in the harbour at Halifax December 6, 1917, that laid waste a large part of the city and brought death or permanent injury to thousands of its citizens, threw James Hickey, for many years correspondent of the Associated Press, through a shattered glass door in the office of the Halifax Chronicle.

When he picked himself up, Hickey was bleeding from cuts on his left arm and hand, but, without realizing that he was injured, he rushed into the street with but one thought in his mind—there had been a disaster and it depended on him to sound the alarm to the outside world before telegraphic communication collapsed, as he felt it inevitably would.

At the shock the Canadian Press leased wire snapped. Struggling through a street choked with panic stricken men and women, Hickey reached the Western Union office only to find it dismantled and deserted. At the Canadian Pacific Railways Telegraph office a broker’s operator still stood by his wire, but the wire went dead a moment later.

Near the building occupied by the Postal and Halifax & Bermuda Cable Company, Hickey stumbled upon Superintendent Hagen of the Cable Company and asked him if he could get off a bulletin to the Associated Press by way of Havana, Cuba. Mr. Hagen with considerable peril to himself crawled over the debris in what had been his office and touched a wire.

“It’s alive,“ he said. Then as Hickey dictated, the Superintendent transmitted the only news message that went out of Halifax that day, finishing it only seconds before the isolation of the stricken city, so far as wire communication was concerned, was complete.

Hundreds of persons were killed and a thousand others injured and half the city of Halifax is in ruins as the result of the explosion on a munition ship in the harbour today. It is estimated the property loss will run into the millions. The north end of the city is in flames.

Later in the day Hickey sent out a follow up story which was carried on December 7 in several Canadian and American newspapers. The Toronto Evening Telegram headlined his account Belgian Relief Ship Gored Hull of Explosive-laden French Craft.

Belgian Relief Ship Gored Hull of Explosive-laden French Craft

By Canadian Press Halifax, N.S., December 6 – As the result of a terrific explosion aboard a munition ship in Halifax harbour this morning a large part of the north end of the city and along the waterfront is in ruins and the loss of life appalling. Estimates place the number of dead at more than one thousand.

On one ship alone forty were killed. Thousands have been injured. The property damage is enormous, and there is scarcely a window left in a building in the city.

Chief of Police Hanrahan tonight estimates that the dead may reach 2,000. Twenty-five wagons loaded with bodies have arrived at one of the morgues.

Among the dead are the fire chief and his deputy, being hurled to death when a fire engine exploded. Fire followed the explosion, and this added to the greatest catastrophe in the history of the city.

All business has been suspended and armed guards of soldiers and sailors are patrolling the city. Not a streetcar is moving, and part of the city is in darkness. All the hospitals and many private homes are filled with injured. The offices of the railway station, the Arena rink, military gymnasium, sugar refinery and elevator collapsed, and injured scores of people.

The munitions ship was bound from New York for Bedford Basin, when she collided with a Belgian ship bound for sea.  Following the collision the explosion occurred, and in an instant the whole city was shaken to its foundations. Thousands rushed for the open, and some of the children in the schools became panic-stricken. On every street could be seen adults and children, with blood streaming from their wounds, rushing to the nearest doctors’ offices.

The work of rescue was greatly impeded by the piles of debris in the devastated area.

A part of the town of Dartmouth is also in ruins. Nearly all the buildings in the dock yard are in ruins. Practically all the north end of the city has been laid to waste. The destruction extends from the North Street Railway Station north as far as Africville to Bedford Basin, and covers about two square miles. The buildings which were not destroyed by the explosion were laid waste by the fire that followed. Thousands of people have been rendered homeless.

The Academy of Music and many other public buildings have been thrown open to house the homeless. Five hundred tents have been erected on the Commons, and these will be occupied by the troops who have given up their barracks to house the homeless women and children. Temporary hospitals and morgues have been opened in the school houses in the western section of the city. The doctors and nurses worked heroically in rendering aid to the injured…

A few minutes after the explosion occurred, the streets were filled with terror-stricken people trying to make their way to the outskirts, in order to get out of the range of what they thought to be a German raid. Women rushed terror-stricken through the streets, many of them with children clasped to their breasts. In their eyes was a look of terror as they struggled on with blood-stained, horror-stricken faces, endeavouring to get away from the falling masonry and crumbling walls.

By the littered roadsides as they passed, there could be seen the remains of what had been human beings, now torn and mangled beyond realization of what had occurred. Here and there the cloth-wrapped bodies of children, scarred and twisted by the force of the horrible explosion. By the side of many of the burning ruins were women who watched the flames as they consumed the houses which in many cases held the bodies of loved ones. With dry eyes they watched their homes devoured by the flames, and as others passed with inquiries as to whether they could render any aid, they shook their heads in a dazed manner, and turned their gaze to the funeral pyres…

Michael Dupuis launches Bearing Witness on June 3 at 3 p.m. at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

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