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Halifax was a busy, wartime port city in 1917. The First World War had been underway for three years, exposing Canadian servicemen to injury, death and hardship, but bringing prosperity to Halifax. After decades of hard economic times, the city was a hub of Canada's war effort. With one of the finest and deepest ice-free harbours in North America, Halifax was the port through which tens of thousands of Canadian, British Empire and American troops passed on their way to the battlefields of Europe, or on their way home.
The city’s population of nearly 50,000 was swollen by the influx of troops, and by Canadian and British naval officials supervising activity in the port. Millions of tonnes of supplies also passed through the port, en route to the war — wheat, lumber, coal, food, munitions and armaments — arriving by rail and departing on ships. The harbour was not only home to Canada's fledgling Royal Canadian Navy, but was also a base for Royal Navy vessels and merchant ships from around the world, needing repair or resupply.
After a series of whistles and miscommunications between the officers and pilots on the two ships, and failed manoeuvres to avoid a collision, the Imo struck the starboard bow of the Mont-Blanc. After a few moments the two ships parted, leaving a gash in Mont-Blanc's hull and generating sparks that ignited volatile grains of dry picric acid, stored below its decks.
For nearly 20 minutes the Mont-Blanc burned. The fire encompassed burning drums of benzol, a form of gasoline, on the ship's top deck, sending a huge plume of black smoke into the sky.
The Mont-Blanc exploded at 9:04:35 a.m., sending out a shock wave in all directions, followed by a tsunami that washed violently over the Halifax and Dartmouth shores. More than 2.5 square km of Richmond were totally levelled, either by the blast, the tsunami, or the structure fires caused when buildings collapsed inward on lanterns, stoves and furnaces.
Homes, offices, churches, factories, vessels (including the Mont-Blanc), the railway station and freight yards — and hundreds of people in the immediate area — were obliterated. Farther from the epicentre, Citadel Hill deflected shock waves away from the south and west ends of Halifax, where shattered windows and displaced doors were the predominant damage.
The blast shattered windows in Truro, 100 km away, and was heard in Prince Edward Island. The crew of the fishing boat Wave, working off the coast of Massachusetts, even claimed to have heard the boom rumbling across the ocean.