Ask Sibert Medal–winner Sally Walker (Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, 2005, etc.) what subjects turn her on, and she’ll tell you point-blank: “history, mystery and science.” In Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917, Walker tackles all three in this gripping account of one of the most devastating maritime accidents in history.
Early on Dec. 6, 1917, two boats bound for war-torn Europe inexplicitly collided in the narrows of Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia. The Imo, laden with war-relief supplies, mistakenly crossed paths with the Mont-Blanc and ripped a hole in her hull that sparked a chain reaction of unprecedented proportions—for the Mont-Blanc’s cargo happened to contain 2,925 tons of explosives and extremely combustible benzene.
Soon after being hit, the Mont-Blanc caught fire and ran aground near the Harbour’s Pier 6. Clocks frozen at 9:04 a.m. tell the story of the moment chemical reactions aboard the burning ship reached their crescendo, resulting in the largest explosion the world had then seen. Shock waves emanating from the blast caused a tsunami and leveled buildings miles away from the harbor. By day’s end, over 2,000 people had died, with scores more injured and orphaned. With thorough research, Walker presents a holistic view of the tragedy, following five families through that grim day and its aftermath.
Find other books that explore the past among our 2011 Best Books for Children.
I understand you live in Illinois now. Where are you from originally, and what’s your connection to Halifax?
I was born in East Orange, N.J. My husband, who is a geologist, got a position at Dalhousie University, which is in Halifax, and so we basically packed up everything and moved to Halifax in 1982 and lived there for the next two years.
Down at the Maritime Museum in the waterfront area, people told us about the explosion. We had never heard about it before but were quite intrigued because one of our favorite restaurants, a little fish ’n’ chips place, was not far from where the Mont-Blanc had made ground and then exploded. You just don’t think of these things, but right where we were sitting to eat a horrific tragedy had occurred.
So that’s how I got to know Nova Scotia, and at that time, they were just starting to talk about building the memorial bell tower on top of Fort Needham. For many Haligonians who are longtime residents or who have family roots there, back in the ’80s, it was still very painful. There were a number of survivors who were still alive, and they didn’t want to talk about the explosion. The idea of making this bell tower was very emotional for them—not that they didn’t want to do it, it’s just that it was very painful.
That’s interesting. I’d have thought a memorial would have been erected much closer to the date of the tragedy.
Maybe we are in a different world now when we look at these things, wondering what we can put up at the site of the World Trade Towers, for example. Back then, people just wanted to put the explosion behind them. For many, that was all they could handle emotionally. In the case of one of the families I follow—the Pattison family, who had two boys who survived while their brother, sister and father were killed—the mother never spoke about the explosion day ever again. Ever. And she lived well into her 80s. So things like this can affect people in very different ways.
Why did you decide to tell this story?
I think people of all ages can become quite empathetic for people who are going through a tragedy of some sort. We connect with them on a human level, just as kids are fascinated by the Titanic. It’s a gigantic boat going down, and there’s the horrendous loss of life, but you’re also drawn to the story. So I just thought people would connect with these folks who were in a situation where basically the only things that got them through were hope and the kindness of strangers. I think that’s something we hold onto in times of great upset, of turmoil—that we’re hoping to make the connection with people who care and will help us through. These people were happy, sad, cold, hungry—we all can relate to that.
Did you find there were certain aspects of the story you had to leave out because of your audience’s age?
Oh absolutely…I cannot tell you how many times. I read over 200 survivor accounts and newspaper descriptions, as well as of the aftermath, and there’s no way I could include some of the descriptions I read for a [young] audience. The descriptions, the injuries that people suffered were very graphic.
How did you arrive at such a powerful title?
When the explosion occurred, in the city of Halifax and across the harbor in Dartmouth, every single pane of glass was broken in all of the buildings. And then I read about all of these survivors—everybody ran to their windows to see what was going on in the harbor. And I just thought blizzard of glass. It was a disconnect almost. There was a blizzard of snow after the incident and a blizzard of glass. Blizzard of Glass just sounds really nasty. I’m one of those people who, when a glass breaks, I’m on the floor freaking out about shards going everywhere. That’s where the title came from.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching this?
A number of things. One was that there was just so darn much explosive on the Mont-Blanc. 2,900 tons: That’s a number I can’t even get my head around. When I explain it to kids, I say: “Now remember; an elephant weighs a ton.” To me, that was astounding—the sheer volume of the explosion.
Another thing that interests me about this story is it’s World War I. There’s so little about WWI for kids; we usually go from the Civil War to World War II. Granted this isn’t in the forefront of WWI, but if it hadn’t been for WWI, those boats wouldn’t have been where they were. And actually, the Halifax explosion was the prototype for modern aid relief, like used in Haiti. The roots of all of that organization go right back.
When we were in Halifax, it was also interesting how people talked about how this was where remains and victims of the Titanic had been brought, and that for them was the big disaster. The ties to all these stories aren’t always on the surface, but the roots are there. Halifax is so rich with stories and connections.