Disaster Strikes Home Front
As the Great War thundered on into December 1917, Halifax harbour acted as one of the main gathering points for Allied ships sailing to the European war. On 6 December, a relief ship named Imo departing Halifax was moving too fast, and passing ships on the wrong side in the narrow harbour. A munitions ship named the Mont-Blanc that was entering the harbour, encountered the Imo in its path. The ships tried to avoid each other but failed. The Imo struck the starboard bow of the Mont-Blanc. The sparks from the collision lit the benzol stored on the Mont-Blanc. The Mont-Blanc drifted toward the Halifax waterfront, belching huge plumes of smoke as barrels shot off the ship and exploded mid-air.
The spectacle lasted for 20 minutes during Halifax's morning commute. Thousands of people heading to work and school stopped to watch. The Mont-Blanc crew fled on lifeboats for the Dartmouth shore, on the opposite side of the harbour, as the burning ship, carrying TNT and other explosives, drifted to Pier 6 on the Halifax side. The pier sits at the bottom of a hill and many people in the houses overlooking the incident watched from their windows.
The Mont-Blanc exploded at about 9:06 a.m., sending a devastating shock wave over the hill and into downtown Halifax. Debris fell from the sky, hurting more people. In a city of 50,000 people, 2,000 died and 9,000 were hurt. Because so many were staring at the ship when it exploded, hundreds of people suffered eye damage. Mothers and children watching from windows saw the glass shatter before it stabbed them blind.
In the coming days, 12 ophthalmologists helped 592 people suffering from eye injuries. The eye specialists performed 249 enucleations (removal of eyes). Of those, 16 people lost both eyes. The British Journal of Ophthalmology says George H. Cox, an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist from the town of New Glasgow, NS, joined 11 other doctors and nurses who reached Halifax on the evening of 6 December.
“We had to make our way along streets and tracks blocked and covered with debris of all sorts…every here and there, dead men on piles of black stuff. The whole area was darkened by smoke or lit up by flames from the burning debris,” Cox later said.
Cox set up in the Camp Hill Hospital and treated people with eye injuries for several days without stop. Many people had shards of glass stabbed into their eyes, leaving them badly damaged or ruined. Cox and his team performed 76 enucleations and five double enucleations in four days. He repaired lacerated eyelids and removed pottery, nails and mortar. Many patients died of their horrific injuries.
Founding of CNIB
The event proved crucial in the founding of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. The forerunner of the organization had started a decade earlier in Ontario as the Canadian Free Library for the Blind, circulating Braille books to readers. By 1917, it was called the Canadian National Library for the Blind. After learning of the mass-blinding caused by the explosion, the library raised money to help with the relief.
Nova Scotia was already a North American leader in care for the blind. It was home to the well-regarded Halifax School for the Blind, and had an 1882 law that ensured free education for people who were blind.
During the war, Halifax also saw a steady stream of blinded military personnel returning to Canada after experiencing superior care in England. The combination of the explosion’s mass-blinding, and the knowledge gained by caring for the returning soldiers, led to the founding of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in 1918.
Between the Halifax Explosion and the war, there were suddenly hundreds of people blinded in mid-life, who intended to return to their old lives. That meant while the focus right after the explosion was on the physical care of the injured, it shifted to caring for the whole person after the war. Canada sent people to England to learn how that country integrated people without sight into mainstream society.
The early CNIB helped people learn to read Braille and to knit. It introduced them to tools like washing machines and bread mixers to increase their independence. Volunteers began organizing social outings, where blind people could meet others who had suffered the same fate and share approaches for overcoming their disability. Volunteers also organized classes to teach people about life after losing their sight.
A century later, the CNIB proudly operates under a slogan inspired by the Halifax Explosion: “Seeing beyond vision loss since 1918.” CNIB remains Nova Scotia’s largest provider of vision rehabilitation and works with people across the country, demonstrating as it says, that “with the right support, people who are blind or partially sighted can do almost anything.”