Saturday, October 18, 2008
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I find it instructive that the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia have never obsessed over how the disaster of December 6th, 1917 could have happened to them. They have asked the obvious questions, but have been willing to quickly accept that they would never know the whole truth. In part this was because so many of those responsible were already dead, and in part because it was a time and a place where obsessions could not be tolerated. There was a war on, as the saying goes, and that explained the unexplainable, as you would know if you have ever considered the full implications of that phrase; “There’s a war on.”
Halifax exists because it is one of the largest, best protected ice free harbors in the world, a gift of the Sackville River. The Sackville rises in the center of “New Scotland” near Mt. Unijacke and meanders its way for 25 miles south eastward, spilling from one lake to another until it reaches the head of The Bedford Basin.
Here the Slackville disappears into a drowned river valley, a protected anchorage four miles long by two miles wide. At its southern end is “The Narrows”, which closes to a little under a mile wide. In 1917 the town of Halifax, home to 50,000, rose on the steep hills along the west side of the Narrows, while the suburb of Dartmouth, with a population of 6,500, occupied the east shore.And beyond the bottleneck of The Narrows was Halifax Harbor, which opened to the North Atlantic. The ocean here is warmed by the nearby Gulf Stream Current, and the Great Circle commercial route is just one hour sailing time out to sea. That combination, the harbor and the nearby Great Circle Route, made Halifax a convenient place to rest and load coal before challenging the North Atlantic, or to recover after a harrowing voyage to the new world. And during World War One the Bedford Basin was the logical place for allied convoys to form up in hidden safety.
Early on the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917 there were some fifteen cargo ships crowded into the Basin and several Royal Navy warships in Halifax harbor.
But atypical of all of these ships was the Steam Ship Monte Blanc; 3,121 tons, 320 feet long, and inbound for Bedford Basin. At any other time she would have been a pariah, and expected to unoad her cargo outside the port, on McNab's Island. But there was a war on.
The SS Mont Blanc was just out of New York carrying 2,300 tons of the explosive trinitrophenol (TNP), 200 tons of trintritoluene (TNT), 10 tons of gun cotton and 300 rounds of small arms ammunition. In addition she had 36 tons of the high octane Bezol fuel piled about her decks in 50 gallon drums. In short the ship was a floating bomb. And as the Monte Blanc approached The Narrows she found herself head-on to the outbound 5,043 ton, 430 foot long Norwegian SS IMO, running ballast, outbound for New York to load humanitarian supplies for occupied Belgium. As the two ships approached they each signaled by ship's horns their intention to maintain course and speed. Then without warning the Mount Blanc turned to the right, as if moving to dock at a pier on the Halifax shore. Seeing this, the Imo desperatly reversed her engines, intending to slow and give the Mount Blanc room. But the reverse spin on Imo’s propeller pulled her into the center of The Narrows, and directly into the path of the looming Monte Blanc.
It was 8:45 A.M., local time. The towns of Halifax and Dartmouth were just starting their work days. Large crowds stopped to watch as the two ships sounded their horns in alarm and drew inexorably together. Workers at the new rail yards up the harbor were drawn to the excitment in the harbor. Everyone in town, it seemed, stopped what they were doing witness the drama unfolding.
As if in slow motion the two ships struck. The Imo’s prow sliced into the starboard bow of the Monte Blanc. Benzol drums were thrown about Monte Blanc’s deck, spilling the corrosive fuel. Mont Blanc’s cargo hold was penetrated. For a long moment the two ships hung there in the middle of The Narrows. Then, as the Imo backed away, the scrapping of crumpled metal against metal threw sparks. A fire quickly broke out aboard the Monte Blanc, ignited or fed by the Benzol, sending grey smoke skyward. Within 10 minutes the Mont Blanc’s forty man crew had been forced to take to life boats, shouting in French a warning for the Imo’s crew about their volital cargo. But none of the Imo's crew spoke French. The drifting burning hulk now brushed past Halifax’s pier six, setting it afire as she passed. The Canadian Navy tug and mine sweeper "Stella Maris" joined the Imo in attempting to throw water on the fires, and the "Stella Maris" also sent a boat crew to attempt to take the abandoned wreak under tow.
Meanwhile the Box 83 alarm at the Halifax Fire Department sent men and equipment racing toward the harbor and the burning dock. They arrived there just after nine A.M., forcing their way through the growing crowd along the shore, all drawn there by the spectacular show.
But even now a few knew what was really going on. Mr. P. Vince Coleman, a dispatcher for the Inter-Colonial Railway yards just a few hundred yards inshore from the piers not only saw the accident but knew of the Monte Blanc’s deadly cargo as well. He and other workers in the yards ran for their lives. But then Coleman remembered that a train loaded with 300 passengers from Saint John’s was due to arrive in a few moments. He ran back to his post and tapped out the following message on the telegraph key, “Stop trains. Munitions ship on fire. Approaching pier six. Goodbye.” Every operator up and down the line heard that message. Then, precisely at 9:04:35 the line went dead.
In that instant, in a single white hot flash, the 3,000 ton Mont Blanc was converted into shrapnel - jagged sections of iron weighing from slivers to half a ton. They were ripped from the hull and sent spinning away at supersonic speeds. Part of the Mont Blanc’s anchor landed two and a half miles away.
At the center of the blast the temperature exceeded 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, instantly converting the 40 degree sea water in The Narrows to steam. First a high pressure shockwave raced through the air at 500 feet a second, flattening everything within 4 square miles. Then a fireball took just 20 seconds to rise a mile into the air, where an enterprising photographer snapped a picture from thirteen miles away.
Then a tidal wave 36 feet high swept back and forth across The Narrows, sweeping away everything onshore in its path. An entire Innuit village of 22 families on the Dartmourth shore was drowned by the wave. Windows were shattered 10 miles away. Buildings shook 78 miles distant. And the explosion was heard in Cape Breton, 225 miles to the east. Out of the tug Stella Maris’ crew of 24, only five survived. On board the Imo, the captain, the harbor pilot and five crew members were killed. The 430 foot long Imo was thrown against the Dartmouth shore like a toy in a bathtub, her bottom ripped out. Every other ship in Halifax harbor suffered casualities and damage.
Of the ten firemen who had just arrived at the dock, nine were killed, including the Fire Chief and Deputy Chief. The sole survivor, engine driver Billy Wells wrote, “The first thing I recalled after the explosion was standing quite a distance from the fire engine…the explosion had blown off all my clothes as well as the muscles from my right arm.”
At least 2,000 people had been killed, and 9,000 wounded, not counting the Innuit dead. (Native Americans, quite simply, did not count.)More than 1,000 of those who witnessed the explosion were blinded by flying glass and slivers of wood and steel. Nova Scotia lost more citizens in that one instant than were killed in her army and navies in combat in all the rest of World War One.Slowly rescuers began to move into the devastated square mile, removing the dead, comforting the wounded and searching for survivors in the rubble of their homes and businesses. Then, as darkness began to fall that night, “…almost as if Fate, unconvinced the exploding chemicals…had struck a death blow to Halifax, was now calling upon nature to administer the coup de grace…”. It began to snow. The worst blizzard in ten years buried the shocked port in several feet of snow and condemned untold injured to death by freezing. Every year, the city of Halifax donates a Christmas tree to the city Boston, as thanks for the assistance that was rushed to them in the weeks after the explosion. And every year, on December 6th, from 8:50 A.M., to 9:25 A.M., there is a Memorial Service held at Fort Needham in Halifax to remember the victims of the largest man made explosion on earth ... superseded only by the first atomic bomb test in 1945, when there was another war on.
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Monday, October 13, 2008
I believe that ambitious people tend to be unhappy people. Take Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus Augustus as an example, (or Caesar Augustus, for short) ,who was the first Roman Emperor, beginning about 27 B.C. He was the most ambitious man of his age. He invented the Roman Empire. And he lived longer than all but a couple of the Emperors who followed him. And he had a big funeral in 14 A.D. That's something you get only if you are very ambitious.
Augustus’s last words were, “Did you like the performance?” To which my response is, “In retrospect, it was just okay” because the show ended with two emperors, and in a huge bloody confusing mess which I shall now attempt to explain as best I can. Suffice it to say that if Augustus had seen how sorry his empire would end he might have rolled over in his grave, if the barbarians hadn’t scattered his ashes in 420 A.D. as they burned Rome the first time. That is just one of the ways they earned the title of barbarians. Anyway, the really messy part starts with Julius Nepos.Nepos was governor of Dalmatia and he got the job as Western Emperor in 474 A.D. because he was married to the niece of Leo I, the Byzantium Emperor, and because he was willing to pay for an army to defeat Glycerius, the guy who had knocked off the previous western Emperor. In fact Nepos is Latin for nephew, and - what a surprise - is also the root of the term “nepotsm”, which tells you almost everything you need to know about this schmuck.
Nepos was supposed to bring peace and order to the capital of the Western Empire, which was then at Ravenna, Italy, and boy did he ever screw that up. He started out badly by not killing Glycerius, but instead shipped him off to Salona, the largest port in Dalmatia, where he figured his spies could keep an eye on him. Nepos even made the guy a Bishop in the Church, assuming, I guess, this act of charity would win Glycerius’ loyalty. But as they say in the Emperor business, no good deed goes unpunished.Caesar Augustus (him again) had established the port of Ravenna in the first century B.C. as the home for the Roman fleet. By the fourth century, with the barbarians carrying off half the forum in a fire sale, the capital had been moved first to Milan, and then to the port city because Ravenna was surrounded by swamps and marshes, which offered protection from the invading hordes, of which there were plenty around at the time. But so low had Rome fallen by that time that the next invading hoards didn’t even have to invade, because they were already there. Half the army Nepos used to defeat Glyceriys was made up of German barbarians – er, I mean mercenaries, about 30,000 of them, led at this opportune moment by an ambitious German commander, married to a Roman woman. His name was Orestes, and although he had been secretary to Attila the Hun, he does not seem to have been very bright: just ambitious. And that is probably why Nepos figured that Orestes would not catch on when the new Emperor ordered Orestes to march off to Gaul with all of his German mercenaries. I suspect it was Orestes wife who explained to him what Nepos was really up to, getting the Germans out of Italy and out of the way. Wives have a way of pointing out to husbands when they are being particularly dense. Anyway, it was probably she who suggested that Orestes should offer the Germans their own villas and farms in Italy, which would be stolen from the Roman patricians who owned them. So he did.
Which is why, on August 28, 475, the Germans marched off not to Gaul but to Ravenna. Nepos could have stayed and fought, but then he would not have been Nepos. The schmuck jumped ship in the harbor and sailed home for Dalmatia, taking his purple robes with him. And Orestes walked into the capital, where, instead of crowning himself emperor, he put the crown on his son’s head. And again I suspect this was his wife’s idea.
The twelve year old boy was crowned Emperor Romulus Augustus, on October 31, 475 – what would eventually become Halloween, for anybody with a sense of irony. Of course Orestes was still the power behind the throne (Romulus was 12 years old), which is why the graffiti artists labeled their new Emperor “Romulus Augustulus”, which is the Latin diminutive version of the name – meaning “Little Romulus”. It was the kind of sly, nasty political joke which graffiti artists had been scrawling on the alley walls of Rome for a thousand years. It’s further proof of the old adage that historians spend centuries struggling to learn from dusty records and scratches on walls what they could have discovered in five minutes by talking to the any guy on any streetcorner in ancient Rome. And one of histories’ greatest mysteries, unexplained by the dusty records, is why, having won such power and wealth so easily, Orestes then went back on the promise to his mercenaries and refused to hand over the patrician’s lands to them. Did he think all 30,000 Germans were not going to notice?
They noticed. And quickly rose up under their new commander, Odoacer. And this time they were joined by a lot of the Roman soldiers, and together, in 476, they all marched on Ravenna. Unlike Nepose, brave, couragous, dull headed slow thinking Orestes didn’t have the common sense to run. He was captured just outside the city, and duly executed. Thus fares most dolts in history.
And on September 4, 476 A.D. “Little Romulus” handed over his crown to Odoacer. Romulus was, according to most historians, the last Roman Emperor, having been emperor for barely 10 months. His puberty lasted longer than his nobility. Some stories say that Odoacer gave Romulus a pension, but that seems a little unlikely to me. Odoacer was not a stupid man. I think he likely packed up the little-last Emperor and his entire family and shipped them off to prison in Campania, in Southern Italy. And I have to say I hope Romulus was contented there. You see, history seems at times to be the story of ambitious people getting everybody else into trouble, and this kid never had a chance to be ambitious, even if he were so inclined.The truth is, almost nobody got out of this particular story by natural causes. Poor old Nepos was murdered by his own servants, probably in the pay of Glycerius, on April 25, 480 A.D. Odoacer rushed in to fill the political vacuum, repaying Glycerius by appointing him Archbishop of Milan. And Odoacer settled down to run his little empire.
But such land grabs attracted the suspicions of the new Byzantium Emperor, Zeno, who, being Emperor, was suspicious of anybody as ambitious as himself. So he offered a pile of gold to the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric, if he would cut Odoacer down to size. Theodoric laid siege to Ravenna for three long years. Finally, with both armies suffering from hunger and plague, Theodoric offered Odoacer a truce, which Odoacer agreed to. However, at the celebratory banquet on February the second, 493 A.D., Odoacer said something offensive and without warning Theodoric fell on Odoacer and strangled him with his bare hands. I guess Ocoacer had never heard of the Trojan horse. The repetition here is a bit depressing, I agree.
Little Romulus would outlive most of them but only because he was younger. Legend says he died about 509 A.D., not yet 35 years old, but still residing in his prison outside of Naples. And considering the fate of all the ambitious people in this story, that was a long if not happy, life. Amino Domina, Roman Empire.
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