Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Town That Died by Michael J. Bird

Published by Nimbus Publishing

Many people in this age of man-made destruction are not familiar with the first,  the largest, man-made explosion in the world before Hiroshima, in the somewhat isolated Maritimes of Canada. This is the story of how on Dec. 6, 1917, the town of Halifax was decimated.

The late Michael J. Bird wrote this account of the explosion in 1962. Since then there have been several editions, the edition I read was printed in 2011.

Several books have been written both about what led to this disaster, and also used as a background for a few novels. How could such a huge event happen in Halifax? World War I was still going on, ships were the only option for transporting supplies from North America and Halifax was the closest outgoing port to Europe. This book is the best I've read on the subject, utilizing official reports and records of the event as it happened, as well as eye-witness testimony.

The explosion itself gave the appearance of what we would later see as the atomic bomb, a mushroom cloud over twelve thousand feet high. The explosion not only blew buildings down, windows shattering, and stripping the clothes from people in the path of the wind blast, but also caused a tsunami. Most of Halifax and Dartmouth on the other side of the harbour, were flattened in minutes, then came the fires. A number of factors come into play to cause this. A ship weighed down with ammunition and gasoline and a ship coming out of the harbour collided, causing the friction of the steel to spark and start a fire on the ammo ship.

This book reads very well, and is well documented. It is factual and yet personal in a way. The feelings of fear, miscommunication, confusion, and trauma, along with heroism and the flip side of looters, brings the human perspective into play. The nervousness of the captain of the ship with ammo and his desperation trying to avoid a collision is alive with tension.  Hundreds of bodies, more than 3,500, were never identified and are buried in a mass grave and many more died in the harbour. Hundreds were blinded by either the flash or from flying shards of window glass. I recommend this book on the basis of its facts and realism of a casualty of a war being fought on another continent.

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