Halifax Explosion: To The Rescue

The right photo is titled Halifax Waterfront, N.S. 1920 and is also from that same little shop found along the Halifax Harbour boardwalk. It was taken by Wallace MacAskill roughly two years after the explosion.

The story below is a personal account from the Halifax Explosion. The original comes from the National Archives and I’ve done my best to transcribe it. The author is an anonymous Irish-American volunteer with the Irish Guards. He arrived in Halifax from Philadelphia in November 1917, just before the explosion. This is part two of his experience.

My Experience in the Halifax Disaster, Continued

Now to the rescue! I wish it to be understood that although we were soldiers, there was no command given to go to the rescue. This was absolutely and entirely outside our line of duty as soldiers. Outside of strictly military operations there is no person or persons having the power to order another person to risk their life. And this was certainly by no means a military operation. It was entirely civilian. Not one of that gallant little band needed a command (even if commands could be given) to go to the rescue of their fellow human beings in that hour of dire disaster, and nobody with a heart could do otherwise.

We proceeded toward the scene of the disaster; some fellows without their great coats, some without their caps, but nearly all wearing bandages of some sort or another. As we neared the scene of the explosion it began to unfold itself in a most terrible manner. Wires were strewn across the streets in all directions. “Live” ones as well as “dead” ones; we could not tell which was a “live” wire or which one was not charged. Houses shattered to pieces as though they were mere match wood. We ventured into several of them on our way to search for wounded people but did not find any. We had not far to go from there till we found more than we hoped to find. Halifax railroad station! Now we are at the very scene of that terrible catastrophe. What was once a fine railroad station — the very station I got off at at midnight only a week before — was one hugh pile of twisted steel and debris. My first job, in company with several others, was to assist several sailors who were removing small cases of ammunition stored in huts to a safer place right on the water front. Fires were raging in all directions, “live wires” were strewn all over the place. It was a “ticklish job” but thanks to the goodness of God nothing happened.

The next scene was a heart-rending one. There was a train — loads of Canadian veterans who had just returned from France, all of whom were wounded, and there could be seen many an armless men and many a legless trousers in that pile of human debris. This train was on a siding awaiting orders to proceed with it’s load of crippled heroes to take them to their homes and loved ones, whom they had not seen for over two years when the explosion occurred. I don’t believe ten out of the whole lot of them escaped. Having at least escaped death in France, they had to return to the door- way of their own country to be killed. They were so badly mutilated that in someways the only means of identifying them was by the shoulder plates on their tunics with the word “Canada” on it.

It was one terrible scene of death, destruction, and desolation. There were several merchant ships at anchorage in the harbour, and from their appearance it would be hard to tell if they really were ships or not. There was nothing left of the ammunition sip except hugh chunks of her plates which could be found laying around every place. Her gun which weighed several tons was found three miles from the scene of the explosion. The “Imo” was beached on the Dartmouth shore. There were two galleon cruisers lying at the dock but their stout construction and low builds saved them from severe damage. Their magazines were loaded with ammunition as were the magazines of the merchant – ships, but the sailors aboard immediately flooded them preventing any chance of an explosion on board those ships.

About half of our fellows were sent over to Dartmouth across the harbor from Halifax, which was very hard hit, too. The job before us was a very unpleasant and very dangerous one. Everywhere around lay piles of dead and wounded in the most indescribable condition. The condition in which we found those unfortunate people could not for decency’s sake be described here, and the agonizing and heart-rending screams of the wounded and dying was enough to make the stoutest heart quail and one’s blood run cold.

By this time the naval men had lowered all their boats while any thing that could float on water was pressed into service to take the wounded to places where support could be given.

About fifty of us, sailor and solder, worked frantically for half an hour on a building for a child who we were told was in it. We had no tools but our hands to work with. We succeeded in tearing a hole in the kitchen floor large enough for a man to squeeze through. A sailor went down and handed up a little girl about eight years old with the only damage done to her was a slight wound on the back of her head. Now to get the sailor out of the hole was a much harder job than it was to get the little girl out. The floor of the house sagged down and we had some time to get out that sailor. We had no means of getting the wounded to the boats except to carry them or make improvised stretchers from lengths of debris we would pick up. It was quite a distance in some cases to where we had to carry them. The ground was in such a condition from the force of the explosion and the tidal wave that went up from the harbor made it most difficult to do anything; while trying to be as gentle and tender as possible with those poor creatures added to our difficulties.

On one of my trips to the boats I saw in the distance two black – clothed men hurrying to the scene of the disaster. As they approached I soon recognized them as two Roman Catholic priests and on every trip I made afterward I could see them hurrying to and fro amongst the wounded as we placed them near the water edge to await the arrival of the next boat. They (the priests) were out in the ruins, taking their lives in their hands at different times as any one of those buildings were liable to collapse on them at any instant. They did not stop to realize their danger; their only thoughts were to administer the last rights of the Roman Catholic Church to the wounded and dying of their faith. It filled me with courage and hope to see those holy men- God’s own anointed – administer to these unfortunate people in what in a great many cases was their last moments on this earth.

We continued at this work for at least three or four hours till I was nearly exhausted and the wound on my left hand caused it to swell so much that the glove I wore on it had to be afterward split to get it off. I well remember seeing one of our fellows climb a telegraph pole that had iron spikes drove in it for foot-holds at about a foot apart. He climbed up ten or twelve of those spikes to removed the body of a little girl who was impaled thereover. Of course the child was dead. The dead we disregarded for the time and our one object was to remove the wounded. This we did as we went along. On entering one house a very pathetic scene confronted us. The house was a complete wreck; and lying almost side by side were the bodies of two females. The looked very much like mother and daughter. They were dead; but between them lay a fox terrier dog, apparently uninjured, and try as we may we could not induce that dog to surrender his faithful watch. He was a true friend! Another incident was a house in which the whole family of six or seven were lying dead and the only signs of life was a young chicken.

Fires were raging on all sides; freight trains, houses and any thing that could burn was on fire. In the middle of the devastated area stood a horse as though he was petrified, and nothing could move him.

I could go on almost indefinitely recounting experiences of this sort and the heroism displayed at every moment by the soldiers and sailors in their utter disregard for their own safety.

By this time we had worked our way up to the last house in Richmond which was on the western end of the city. I well remember seeing lying around in one small space eight different pieces of what I am almost positive was one man. It was an isolated place, and we looked around but could find no other bodies whatever near this place.

During this period of time I must have assisted in the rescue of from twelve to sixteen people as we worked in parties of two’s and three’s; sometimes individually; and when we found a person badly wounded we would assist each other. We had been cautioned to do this owing to the danger of entering a building by one’s self. Should that building collapse, that man might be fatally injured and would not be missed till it would be too late.

I am not positive of the exact number of rescues I told part in, and any one can readily understand we were not keeping account in a case like this; our one object was to get those unfortunate people out of that terrible place. In the best of my belief that would be about the right number.

Seeing our captain, who was badly cut about the head and face, a short distance away, I went to him and told him of the condition of my hand and arm. (By this time the swelling had reached my shoulder) He immediately sent me back to barracks where I had the wound dressed properly and my arm put in a sling. It was then near three o’clock in the afternoon. Most of the men had returned by this time, so we had for “chow” a half bowl of soup and two slices of dry bread. They were already conserving what food was left for the poor children, women, homeless and destitute. After our “meal” all of us turned out, wounded and all, to erect tents for the homeless. We put up some five hundred of those army tents on a plane known as the “Commons” – a place used as a drill -grounds.

The only assistance I could render at this job was to carry a few tent pegs in my right hand, but it helped some as every man was needed; even then, it was well after dark before we had them all erected. Our sergeant -major was “kidding” us all about our appearance, saying we looked as though we had just come out of the front line trenches, but the following day he had to go to the hospital and there discovered that one of his ribs was broken. Imagine him working all day with a broken rib and did not know it! He complained about his side hurting him but he would not give in. He was six weeks in hospital.

To be continued…

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