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Book Excerpt—”Aftershock: The Halifax Explosion and the Persecution of Pilot Francis Mackey”

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On December 6, 1917, harbour pilot Francis Mackey was guiding Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, into Bedford Basin to join a convoy across the Atlantic when it was rammed by Belgian Relief vessel Imo. The resulting massive explosion destroyed Halifax’s North End and left at least 2,000 people dead, including pilot William Hayes aboard Imo

Who was to blame? Surviving pilot Francis Mackey was a convenient target for public anger. Charged with manslaughter, he was imprisoned, villainized in the press, and denied his pilot’s licence even after the charges were dropped. A century later he is still unfairly linked to the tragedy. 

Through interviews with Mackey’s relatives, transcripts, letters, and newly exposed government documents, author Janet Maybee explores the circumstances leading up to the Halifax Explosion, the question of fault, and the impact on the pilot and his family of the unjust, deliberate persecution that followed. The following is an excerpt from her book Aftershock, reprinted with permission.

From Chapter 2: “Collision Course”

The explosion that killed Captain Murray and thousands of others in Halifax on the morning of December 6, 1917, followed the collision of an outgoing steamer, Imo, with a heavily laden munitions ship, Mont Blanc. Francis Mackey, by chance, was the pilot assigned to guide Mont Blanc into Bedford Basin. Though he seldom mentioned it to other members of his family, Mackey felt free to speak openly with his son-in-law about that awful accident. He told Ed how the tragedy was set in motion on the first of December in New York.

Mackey learned from his conversations with Mont Blanc’s skipper that the British Admiralty had ordered this old French steamer to be loaded with a terrible cargo of explosives at Gravesend Bay, on the east side of New York Harbor. That mixture of TNT, gun cotton, and picric acid was so dangerous the dockworkers had to cover their boots with cloth so as not to strike sparks. Then barrels of benzol were tied onto the decks. The ship was too slow for the convoy leaving New York for the war in Europe, so Mont Blanc was ordered to head for Bedford Basin and try for a convoy there. The French skipper, Captain Aimé LeMédec, had sealed orders he was meant to open if he couldn’t hook up with a slow convoy and had to cross the Atlantic alone. Francis Mackey would unfortunately come to have a brief, intense acquaintance with LeMédec on the afternoon of December 5, 1917, and the morning after.

Mackey described to Ed how Mont Blanc came crawling up the coast of Nova Scotia and met a bad storm on the way. It had taken the French steamer five or six days to get this far. So when the unlucky old boat arrived off Halifax on the afternoon of December 5, it happened that Captain Mackey had just taken out one ship, Kentucky, and bringing in Mont Blanc was his next assignment. No rest was possible. Mackey was the senior pilot, and there were only about a dozen others, working plenty of overtime with the convoys and all the other wartime harbour traffic.

It was too late that evening for ships to enter the harbour as the submarine nets were closed to prevent u-boat attacks. Mont Blanc would have to anchor off McNabs Island for the night. By then Mackey was aware of what kind of dangerous cargo the ship was carrying. Even so, the pilot decided to stay on board to get an early start in the morning. It was only recently that the convoy system had begun to operate out of Bedford Basin, where merchant ships gathered while waiting to sail in a group across the Atlantic. Escorted by a few British naval vessels, they hoped for a safer voyage through U-boat-infested waters. So far there were no restrictions on what sorts of vessels could enter the harbour to join a convoy. The war must go on, said the government far away in Ottawa.

The pilot’s familiar story would unfold for Ed, who maintained a patient interest, and later for CBC Radio’s Bob Cadman, who interviewed Mackey in 1958: “So I got aboard the Mont Blanc and the man from the examining boat came alongside, as they all had to do to find out what the ship’s cargo was and so on, in connection with sailing up to Bedford Basin. First he thought to do me a good turn by getting word from the forts to allow me to pass up, but it was too late for him to do that. I would have been breaking the law and so would he. I wouldn’t attempt it. A fine afternoon.” But Mackey did ask that special arrangements be made for safe passage the next morning, now that he knew the nature of the hazards above and below the decks.

The examining officer who came aboard Mont Blanc that afternoon was Mate Terrence Freeman, RNCVR, who was surprised to discover a full cargo of explosives. Apparently he had no particular instructions covering such a situation, and the port’s federal traffic regulations had no special procedure in place for dealing with munitions ships. As naval historian John Griffith Armstrong observes, “Freeman had no prerogative to treat the arrival of Mont Blanc as other than routine.”

Mackey spent a quiet evening chatting with LeMédec, who told the pilot with regret that no liquor was allowed on board and there was definitely to be no smoking. It was the first time LeMédec had commanded this particular vessel and he was deeply concerned about its ability to keep up with a convoy. The prospect of crossing the Atlantic alone, without protection against prowling U-boats and on top of such a volatile mix of explosives, must have made for anxious nights in LeMédec’s passage from New York, but Francis Mackey told Ed he himself slept well that night, the sleep of an overworked and weary pilot.

Next morning at daylight the examining boat came to order Mont Blanc to get under way. The pilot asked if there were any special orders in the way of protection for this unusually dangerous ship. “No sir, just proceed as usual,” came the response. But as Mackey soon discovered, proceeding as usual was not possible that day…

Janet Maybee launches her new book Aftershock on December 8 at 7pm at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic on Lower Water Street in Halifax.  

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