The war in Europe seemed to go on forever and many Canadian men were leaving for distant shores as well as those returning with wounds that might never heal. As I silently slipped out of bed so as not to disturb my brother Jack I glanced out at the snowbound countryside and footprints were clearly visible revealing that Andy Collins friend and paperboy had called earlier. My Mother and Father were still asleep and my brother Jack was curled up in a ball to ward off the cold wind that echoed around our house.
Monday, December 6th 1917 was to be a day that would live in my mind forever Even though it began like any other day. My name is John Smithers and I am fifteen years old, whilst Jack my brother is older than me and is infact seventeen although we fought like cat and dog we both loved each other very much, infact we could be seen each morning heading towards the local steelworks where we both worked. The time is seven thirty and whilst my mother was preparing breakfast pop was busy yelling for us boys to get the hell ready for work, a chore he had to do daily.” George” my mother would say,” Those boys will be the death of me?” little did she realise how much those words were going to affect her at a later date. Our Dad was somewhat of a hero to us boys because he not only worked in the Flour Mill he was also a part time fireman who had to be available for every emergency. Jack and I made a race out of who was to leave the table first and he always won and would grab the morning paper from dad and say,” Looks like that damb war is going On forever pop?”. This did not impress my folks because they knew Jack wanted to enlist even though I myself felt he was somewhat mad Jack had his mind set on a career as a soldier.
As we sat eating on that cold frosty morning little did we realise that this was to be a red-letter day in the history of our hometown of Halifax, infact until that day our lives had been pretty mundane. The day was to inspire courage beyond belief.” A BOLT FROM OF THE BLUE” it was described in the Halifax Gazzette, an explosion that was to reduce the docks and most of the town to a pile of ruins. As Jack and I left for work the air was clear and frosty, little did we no the silvery mantle of the early frost was to become blood begrimed by nightfall and the smell of death was to be left hanging around the harbour. As the snowball hit me on the back of the head I knew Jack was in for a snowfight so we began to fight on a friendly basis in the snow until once again soaking wet with Jack astride me I gave in!.
Dad kissed my Mother goodbye and left for work hoping he would not be called upon to attend any fires that day since the previous week the local wool factory had burst into flames taking many lives with it and some said it was arson that did it or some guy having a smoke . I was infact only ten when the talk of the town was an unsinkable ship called the Titanic that had struck an iceberg on its way to New York and thousands of lives had been lost in the freezing cold sea. Kids began to play in the snow as Jack and I began to discuss what we wanted for Christmas with one last attempt to cover Jack in snow before entering our factory, not knowing this was perhaps the last time I was to ever see him?” see you tonight” he said. Before the disaster I was busy sweeping loose chippings off of the factory floor, a job I was not happy with but it did pay wages that put food on the table and at that time compared to others we were pretty lucky!. Inside the steelworks we could hear the noise of the explosion that began just after 9am and word soon spread that a collision had taken place in the harbour between a French munitions ship called the” Mont Blanc” and a Belgian relief ship called the” Imo” a collision that was to rock the very foundation of Canadian life. Later it Became clear that the resulting explosion of the munitions ship contained some 2,600 tons of high explosives, which included 45,000lbs of T.N.T.as pure Benzyl Set the ship alight it began to drift into pier no 8 where upon it exploded. My brother Jack and I plus most of the workforce stopped work and ran out into the cold morning air only to be greeted by thick bellowing smoke. Instinct told us to run along with the others towards the harbour, or rather what was left of it!. Our main concern was to save as many lives as we could; the heat was intense and had melted the snow as we approached the scene. We were not ready for what was to come next though, screams of people wounded and dying rang out in our ears adding to the unbelievable sight that was to confront us. A local school St Josephs Had been reduced to rubble and it dawned on us that many schoolchildren had either Perished in the explosion or were infact buried beneath what was left of the school, Children I had known from my days at that very same school. George Smithers was about to load another sack of Flour on one of the company Vehicles when the ground under him shook and he fell over, as he stood up he knew From experience he was about to be called upon. Chief Condon meanwhile was Busy preparing the Motor Fire Engine Patricia for work; he had received the call from a local grocery owner explaining how two ships had collided causing an Explosion as they drifted in to the pier just below his store. The smell of death and the debris from burning ships was everywhere around the harbour as we approached.
As Jack and I raced towards the scene of the explosion we could hear in the distance the sound of the bell on the Patricia with a smile on our faces we both knew my dad was about to perform another of his heroic deeds. Meanwhile Mother was busy trying to make contact with the Fire station in an effort to find out what had Happened and her thoughts turned to her sons as she pray they were not in danger? At that moment I began to feel sick inside as the bodies came into view bodies that were lined up on what was left of the Pier, bodies of men women and children. The Mont Blanc was a sea of flames as it drifted towards the pier. The Patricia headed As fast as it could go only to be confronted by another explosion as the pier itself Became engulfed inflames leaving the Patricia heading straight into the blazing Inferno George and the crew tried to jump clear but they were too late as the Flames increased and engulfed each and every one of the men. The Patricia was a ball of flames and the men were unable to get off, Chief Condon and all of his Men perished before they got a chance to jump. We were unaware at that time our Father had died since we were trying to get the wounded to safety. On that fateful Day my father and many of his friends died a death so horrifying I found for many Years I was unable to get the mental picture of his death from my mind.
My Mother was trying to contact the fire department whilst worrying about Jack and me and the houses all around her had been reduced to rubble, plus the local school was completely destroyed, she knew many children had died as well as families she had known as the street outside looked as though a twister had gone through it., snow had almost vanished in the heat and the power lines were now down. Suddenly panic took over and people began to scream out in desperation fearing they had lost her family in the explosion. By 10am the great warehouses foundries school and churches were laid low with the twinkling of an eye. The Cotton factory went down in ruins and was quickly consumed by fire along with my fathers Flour Mill and it was to be the flour mill that many Lives were lost because walls began to fall in on them before they could get out. Suddenly the roof of the Halifax Railway Station collapsed killing many, who were inside,
It seemed to Jack and I disaster after disaster as we tried in vain to save the wounded and those struck by shattering glass that left them unable to focus. The explosion has shaken the very foundations of many houses and indeed many had collapsed in a heap of rubble whilst people were still inside of them , some Ran out into the streets screaming. It was about this time that Mary Smithers decided to once more try and reach her family, as she started to leave the house it shook and the walls began to fall in as Mary tried to run towards the living room the wall collapsed on top of her leaving her trying to claw her way out, as she tried in vain to get free another wall collapsed on top of her. It was only when her body was found the words” HELP!” Were written in the rubble she lay in. My brother Jack and I were unaware that we had not only lost our father but also our Mother had perished in what she thought was an Earthquake. As we continued a Plate glass window crashed in and doors fell down and at that moment Jack and I wondered if we were ever going to live through this ourselves?. At that moment Jack and I wondered why indeed we had not heard the bell of the Patricia at some time? this was just as the fires began to engulf us and more and more Buildings collapsed.
As Jack and I dragged the wounded and the dead from the shops and offices we were met by scores of fear stricken men and women and children mostly covered In blood and crying out in anguish crying out for an explanation!. Suddenly the thick spiral cloud reaching towards the heavens told its ugly tale and slowly the truth became clear. Two ships in a collision one a munitions ship had Exploded and collided with the other in the harbour. With death and destruction all around us I turned to Jack who was by now unrecognisable since he also was covered in blood. I remember the moment clearly because Jack was holding a baby in his arms whilst its mother was screaming for help as we realised her husband had been hit by falling masonry killing him outright. It was then I knew the magazine in the dockyard would at any time explode so I suggested we make tracks for the town. Jack was not about to abandon the women or her child and he continued placing the baby in the women’s arms. I knew we were in imminent danger but I had no Intention of leaving my brother or the women and baby behind!. As I knelt to Help an old man climb to his feet I saw Jack leave the women and baby and enter what was left of another building, it was then I shouted for him to stay where he was but he never heard me!.
Suddenly the building shook and my worst nightmare began as the wall shook violently and collapsed. Running towards the smoke filled area I realised Jack was underneath the wall and I began to claw at the bricks In desperation until my hands were covered in blood, calling out his name many times until eventually I came across the broken body of my brother!. As I knelt cradling his head in my arms I pray to god he would open his eyes, but it was to no avail because as the dust cleared I knew Jack was dead! At that Moment I looked to the heavens and screamed out,”Why?, Why did it happen to Him”?. The grief that I felt as I cradled his head in my arms was just too much for a boy of my age and the tears began to fall like raindrops mingling with the dust and blood that was on my clothes.” Get out of their son the rest of the building is about to collapse?”. The voice came from a distance and I knew what was about to happen but my only thought at that time was to stay with my brother. With falling Masonry all around me felt my world coming to an end little did he realise that my grief was not to end and that I John Smithers had lost all of my family in a disaster that would remain with me forever.
As I carried the broken body of my dead brother from the rubble news came that the explosion was at an end and that the survivors could regain their equilibrium. Doctors and Nurses were on the scene in minutes as people began to forget there own safety whilst rendering help to those in need. As I carried my brothers limp towards our home I realised it was no longer standing. Although my brother Jack was heavy I was so distraught I never noticed only stopping to see if my brother was alive!. Many folk were digging with their bare hands trying to find relatives buried beneath the rubble shouting out names as they claw away with blood covered hands never giving up hope that maybe someone was still alive. As I made my way through what looked like war torn streets I fell to my knees and began to sob violently as suddenly I had not only lost my family buy had gone from boy to man in those first few hours of the tragedy.
Mr Baxter a close friend of the family came rushing towards me screaming out That I was to keep away since my house was no more, but I was determined to carry on so once more I picked up my brother and carried on walking until I found what was left of my home. Placing my brother on the ground I began to dig with my bare hands to try and find my mother all the time calling out to her as I removed brick after brick. Her face was covered in dust as I wiped it clear with my torn shirt. She looked like she was asleep as I began to talk to her but it was to no avail. Mr Baxter placed his hand on my shoulders as though he were telling me my mother was dead it was that moment I looked to the Heavens and screamed out,” Why did I not die with them?”, as tears fell on The words his mother had written in the dust I fell to the ground and lay unaware that Mr Baxter had carried my brother’s body away .It was then news spread that the fire engine Patricia was racing towards the scene of death and destruction with my Father on board!.