How the explosive destruction of Halifax holds lessons — and hope — for Beirut

How the explosive destruction of Halifax holds lessons — and hope — for Beirut

This week, it’s Beirut. But a century ago, it was Halifax. And while Lebanon’s tragedy naturally differs from Canada’s, the 1917 disaster offers lessons for handling today’s cataclysm — and preventing another one. When World War I broke out in 1914, Halifax became Europe’s supply depot. With London pressing Canada for more men, munitions and ships, Halifax Harbor’s regulations quickly eroded. By 1917, the Halifax commander felt compelled to warn his superiors: “It is not possible to regulate the traffic in the harbor, and it is submitted that I cannot in this regard accept the responsibility for any accident occurring.” Ship captains, crews, harbor pilots, military officials and local authorities all cut corners, assuming “someone else” would uphold the safeguards needed to avoid disaster. This set in motion an improbable series of events that led to catastrophe — exactly what appears to have happened in Beirut. It started in November 1917, when a crew in Brooklyn packed a staggering 6 million pounds of high explosives into the hold of a French ship called Mont-Blanc, then stacked barrels of highly volatile airplane fuel on deck — unwittingly constructing the perfect bomb. En route to Europe, the captain and crew eagerly entered the safety of Halifax Harbor at dawn on Dec. 6. At the same hour, a Norwegian relief ship named Imo, running behind schedule, was just as anxious to leave. At the harbor’s narrowest stretch, Imo’s impatient captain violated nautical convention by passing several ships on the left. This set up ...
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