The Hero of Halifax Harbour

The Hero of Halifax Harbour

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

The Hero of Halifax Harbour

A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are based on the labours of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.

Albert Einstein

There was a thin coat of snow on the slopes of Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917. Vincent Cole was a warmhearted family man who arrived at his office in Richmond Station that day in the booming wartime port. He placed his lunch pail on a shelf and began his day as a railway dispatcher.

The Great War had brought prosperity to Halifax. The quaint maritime harbour bustled with convoys of men and materials bound for Europe. On this particular morning, a French munitions ship called the Mont Blanc was moving slowly out into the narrows of Halifax Harbour, on the Dartmouth side, at a lazy four knots. Her captain was taking his ship to join a flotilla of supply vessels bound for war-torn Europe.

Captain Le Medec was taking no chances. Four days earlier, his ship had been loaded to the hilt with 2,000 tonnes of picric acid, 180 tonnes of TNT, live rounds, gun cotton, and 32 tonnes of benzol. The Mont Blanc was now literally a floating bomb, but because it was wartime, she was not flying the mandatory explosives flag to warn others.

Coming in the other direction, destined for New York, was the Imo, a neutral Norwegian vessel running relief missions to Belgium. It should have been on the Halifax side, but for some reason, the Imo was running right down the Mont Blanc’s channel.

When the two ships sighted each other, a volley of whistle blasts followed in an agonised attempt to persuade one or the other to move. At the last moment, the pilot of the Mont Blanc cried out an order to his helmsman to cut hard left. But it was too late. Seconds later the Imo sliced almost noiselessly through the starboard side of the Mont Blanc’s hull, sending out a shower of sparks. By the time the two ships pulled apart, the Mont Blanc was in flames.

Well aware of the devastating explosion soon to follow, the captain and crew of the Mont Blanc wasted no time in taking to their lifeboats. They abandoned their burning ship, which drifted toward one of the Halifax piers.

As black smoke and flames rose from the Mont Blanc, crowds of people began gathering on the pier to watch the excitement, rushing to find the best vantage points. On every ship nearby, sailors and stevedores forgot their work and watched, unaware of the impending disaster. As soon as they were alerted of the crash, the Halifax fire department dispatched its new engine and two boat parties to fight what they thought was a simple fire.

Directly above Pier 9 lay Richmond Station and the freight yards of the Canadian Government Railway— where Vincent Coleman worked. Vincent and chief clerk William Lovett were sitting in the dispatch centre discussing the fire when suddenly a desperate looking sailor burst in yelling, “Commander says the burning ship is loaded with explosives! Get out quick!”

For a second, neither man moved. Then William leapt for the telephone and called the railway office on Cornwallis Street to warn others of the deadly explosion they now realized was imminent.

With that handled, William and Vincent made for the door in desperation. They had left the office and were fairly leaping across the tracks when Vincent suddenly stopped, a horror-stricken look on his face. He had suddenly remembered that just moments from now, several passenger trains carrying hundreds of people were scheduled to arrive and stop right in the centre of the danger zone. With all of those lives at stake, and an overwhelming feeling of responsibility, Vincent fell behind.

In amazement, William stopped and yelled back at him: “What do you think you’re doing? We only have a minute or two left! You’re a married man with a family to think of!” But by now Vincent could only think about the passenger trains filled with hundreds of innocent people, speeding toward the threatened harbour. His one and only purpose was to stop them.

As the others ran on, Vincent returned to his office and solemnly tapped out one last message: “Munitions ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Good-bye.” For a brief moment his thoughts turned to his loving wife and children.

At 9:05 A.M., a giant explosion shook Halifax and a pillar of white smoke rose eight kilometres into the sky. A tidal wave swept the shore and windows were broken miles away. The Mont Blanc was blown apart, and the Imo ran aground. The force of the blast was strong enough to hurl a clock out of a tower at Truro, 100 kilometres away. The shock was even felt in Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, more than 270 kilometres away.

Close to two thousand people perished in the inferno that day, including Vincent Coleman. But Vincent’s final desperate message had been heard, and the trains managed to grind to a stop just in time to save the lives of the hundreds of people onboard.

Today, the half-ton shank of the Mont Blanc’s anchor still lies where it landed, three kilometres from the explosion. A clock on the Halifax City Hall will rest forever at 9:05 A.M. The North Halifax Memorial Library stands as a monument to the events of December 6, 1917, and the incredibly selfless act of Vincent Coleman—and other heroes like him.

Darlene Montgomery
Toronto, Ontario

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