Highrises coated in glass crowd the skyline of modern-day Halifax, a much different scene than 100 years ago when timber frames and simple masonry made up the cityscape near the city’s waterfront.
On the cool, clear morning of Dec. 6, 1917, swaths of the city were demolished in an instant by the largest human-caused explosion before the atomic bomb.
With about 2,000 dead, the Halifax Explosion remains one of deadliest disasters in Canadian history. But what would happen if a similar explosion occurred in Halifax today?
The answer, according to John Newhook, is the death toll would likely be even worse.
“The density of people downtown now is much larger,” said Newhook, a professor of civil engineering at Dalhousie University.
“So even if the zone of damage will still contain to approximately the same area as it was 100 years ago, imagine how many more people are living and working in that area now.”
Between 60,000 and 65,000 people lived in Halifax and Dartmouth in 1917 when the Belgian relief ship Imo collided in Halifax harbour with the Mont-Blanc, the French munitions ship that caught fire and caused the Halifax Explosion.
Today, more than 315,000 people live in the urban area around Halifax harbour, according to Statistics Canada.
Newhook said given the number of casualties that would result from a modern-day blast of the same magnitude, it would be a “massive challenge” for first responders and emergency crews.
“Who has an emergency management plan conceiving that much injury and fatality in such a short period of time?” said Newhook.
The Halifax Emergency Management Office does.
Casualties from a Halifax Explosion-like event would be inevitable, but there are tools that weren’t available in 1917, according to Barry Manuel, the agency’s Halifax co-ordinator.
One of those is a radio system that allows police officers, firefighters and paramedics to co-ordinate. Modern information systems would also tell officials that huge amounts of explosives were aboard one of the ships before it blew up.
The Halifax Explosion didn’t just kill a lot of people. It’s estimated one in 50 survivors was blinded by flying glass and debris, the largest mass blinding in Canadian history.