Rising from the ashes

When the Halifax Explosion hit, the Hinch family lost more than most: a tragedy through the eyes of a 15 year-old

Writer’s note: When my book Bearing Witness was published for the centenary of the Halifax Explosion in 2017, I thought I had written the full story about the tragedy experienced by Canadian Press messenger boy Leo Hinch. Thanks to his descendants, I’ve learned there’s much more to tell.

Leo Hinch would never forget Dec. 6, 1917.

At 9:00 a.m., the stocky 15-year-old Halifax born Canadian Press messenger boy left the second-floor news agency’s office in the Halifax Morning Chronicle on Granville Street. Like thousands in Halifax and Dartmouth, Leo was unaware that 15 minutes earlier, the Belgian relief vessel Imo had collided with the munitions laden steamer Mont-Blanc in the Narrows, a fire had erupted on Mont-Blanc and the burning vessel drifted to Pier 6 on the northeast side of Halifax.

At 9:04 Leo stood on the Chronicle’s front entrance contemplating the crisp late autumn day. His first job was to go to the Halifax Herald and Acadian Recorder and collect duplicate copies of their main stories. He would then hand over the “dupes” to the agency’s telegraph operator who would select, edit and wire the most important local stories to newspapers across the country.

The Hinch home was one of hundreds that the Halifax Explosion destroyed. Photo: Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1987 453 no. 4341

As Leo exited the building, he saw a blinding flash of light and giant fireball soar over his North End neighbourhood. Next was a horrendous ear-splitting roar and crash. Within seconds the earth beneath his feet shook, the Chronicle building swayed and he tumbled onto Granville Street. For several moments Leo lay on the ground, unable to move. In the eerie silence that followed he slowly picked himself up from a pile of shattered glass and splintered wood.

Unhurt but dazed, Leo wondered what had caused the disaster. German bombs from a Zeppelin or shells from a submarine? A gas-main explosion? A massive dynamite detonation from the western rail cut to the Ocean Terminals?

Of course, it was was Mont-Blanc’s 2.9-kiloton explosion at Pier 6 which would result in the devastation of a 10-square-kilometer area of Halifax/Dartmouth. Some 2,000 died, 9,000 were injured, more than 200 blinded; 1,600 houses destroyed, 12,000 damaged, more than 6,000 people made homeless, and 12,000 left without adequate shelter.

As a thick, mushroom-shaped cloud spiralled high over the North End and a black mixture of oil, soot, and water rained down, Leo had one thought: go home. As he neared North Street and the start of the working-class district of Richmond, the destruction shocked him. The roof of the North End station had fallen in and splintered glass covered the platform. Gas mains and water pipes were ruptured, telegraph and telephone lines down, railway and streetcars wrecked, trees trunks split, roads littered with debris and dead or dying horses.

The magnitude of human disaster indelibly seared into Leo’s memory. Scarred, twisted, torn, and mangled bodies, including tiny children, were everywhere: in street gutters, draped over upturned vehicles and blown onto overhead wires, telephone poles and tree limbs. Some had heads torn from bodies, others limbs from trunks or cut in two. A few were naked. He also found victims on their back with not a bone broken or mark of an injury: the concussion killed them instantly.

Moving north along Gottingen Street, Leo soon encountered a mass of fear-stricken women and children lacerated by iron and steel shards, flying glass fragments, and splinters. Rushing from homes they were crying, bleeding, and pleading for help. Other blood-spattered and wounded survivors were hobbling to the nearest doctors’ offices and hospitals. Most pathetic were the strangely gashed and blinded victims who stumbled from ruined and burning structures crying out for help as automobiles, delivery vans, heavy wagons, wheelbarrows, and other improvised stretchers scurried by with blanket-clad bodies to temporary hospitals and morgues.

Further along Gottingen, Leo saw the devastation to the cheap, wood-frame houses covering the working class community. The blast’s concussion collapsed most of these structures, spewing pickets from fences, shingles from roofs, plaster and laths from walls and causing heavy timbers to crush whole families at once. More horrifying than instant death was the fate of the living and injured who survived the house’s collapse only to be burned alive in the ruins from toppled kitchen and hall stoves.

At the corner of Gottingen and Richmond, Leo turned east towards Barrington and the waterfront. As he approached 18 Richmond St. his worst fears were realized. Less than 300 metres from Ground Zero, his house, according to a Dec. 10 newspaper account, “was entirely destroyed, having first collapsed and then burned to the ground.” Inside the wreckage were the bodies of his mother Louisa and brothers Harold and John, plus one year-old Catherine Matheson, his sister Cora’s daughter. No rescue attempt was possible.

Leo’s father David, a boilermaker, survived because he was away when the explosion occurred. He had the grizzly task of identifying the bodies, including the “charred remains” of his wife, and later the bodies of his brother and 10 children. According to great-niece Susan Oxford, after this experience David “was never the same.”

Leo Hinch with sister Cora Matheson (right) and sister Annie Nelson (left) in Dartmouth in the 1950s. Front row (left to right): Cora, Leo, and Annie. Photo courtesy Susan Nelson.

That wasn’t the extent of Leo’s losses. Thirty-two relatives, all in the neighbourhood near Ground Zero, also died, including four uncles, two aunts, 20 cousins, one sister-in-law, and three nieces and nephews.

The outcome at 66 Veith St., where 10 of Leo’s cousins and his uncle Joseph died, was particularly devastating. The family’s only survivor was Leo’s pregnant Aunt Mary Jean who had left the house moments before the blast. The explosion buried her under debris in a ditch across the street. Rescuers found her 24 hours later under two metres of lumber clutching her rosary. Miraculously, she had not been swept into the harbour when the blast’s eight-metre tidal wave had surged up Richmond and then back down to the Narrows.

The loss of his mother and brothers was not Leo’s first experience of death in the family. Like many other families in Richmond’s working-class district, the Hinch household was large. Married in 1885, Louisa had given birth to 11 children. Leo had watched four die: Percy with cholera and Henry of asthma; Kathleen from dysentery/whooping cough and Agnes of broncho/pertussis.

As darkness descended on Dec. 6, the temperature dropped and snow began to fall. After midnight, a blizzard raged. The next morning, Leo found the ruins blanketed in white, temporarily camouflaging the family’s crematorium. However nothing could hide the smell of burning wood, coal, and human flesh.

Leo turned 16 on Dec. 12 and soon after joined his father and sisters Cora and Ellen at Mount Olivet Cemetery to lay to rest John, Harold, and Louisa, whose coffin also contained niece Catherine. On Dec. 22 Leo also likely attended the burial of 10 cousins and Uncle Joseph at Mount Olivet. Joseph was placed in one casket and the remains of the children in another.
The Halifax Relief Commission did not provide relief directly to Leo but awarded his father a total of $2,480 to compensate for the loss of property and possessions and loss of wages for 18-year-old Harold.

Leo Hinch in Schenectady, N.Y. in 1965. Photo courtesy Susan Nelson.

Leo soon left Halifax and Nova Scotia and settled in Welland, Ont. where on April 13, 1921 he married British-born Nora Vernon. In 1924 they moved to Schenectady, N.Y. where he worked as a welder for more than 25 years for the American Locomotive Company (ALCO). On April 13, 1971 they celebrated their 50th anniversary. Leo died in Schenectady on Oct. 2, 1979 leaving behind Nora, two children (Harold and Irene) four grandchildren and several nieces and nephews.

Following Leo’s death, Nora said to Irene, “I want to go with him.” Perhaps willing herself to do so after nearly 60 years of marriage, on Oct. 9 Nora slipped into a coma after viewing Leo at the funeral home. She died before his burial.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the version of this story that ran in the December 2019 print edition of Halifax Magazine gave an incorrect date for the Halifax Explosion. Also, due to a fact-checking error, the direction Leo walked to return home was incorrect. The story above has been corrected. We regret the mistake.

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