On the cool clear morning of December 6, 1917, the munitions ship Mont Blanc, already on fire from a collision in HalifaxHarbour with the Belgian relief ship Imo, glances off pier 6 in the north end of Halifax sparking a fire in the dockyard. West Street firemen were the first to arrive at the pier 6 fire. For all but one of them, it would be their last alarm. At 9:04:35 am the Mont Blanc explodes with a force of 2.9 kilotons. The Halifax Explosion killed between 1600 and 2000 people, wounded another 9000, and left 25,000 people homeless.
Firefighter Albert Brunt survived the explosion because he couldn’t hang on to a moving fire engine. The part-time firefighter was pushing his paint car along Gerrish Street when he heard the alarm go off that morning. He knew the Patricia, Halifax Fire Department’s new fire engine, would soon roar past, and he planned to jump aboard as soon as it slowed to turn onto Gottingen Street. But Brunt didn’t get a secure grip on Patricia’s rails and he slipped off, scrapping his knees and hands. The boys on the truck hooted and hollered after him as they headed for the Pier 6 fire. But Brunt was a lucky man as all but one of the ten member crew of Patricia died when the Mont Blanc exploded that morning.
All of the north end firefighters knew the sound of the dockyard alarm box, known as Box 83. The alarmed seemed to ring almost every day, pulled by some dock worker each time coal embers dumped from ships’ boilers ignited the dock When the Box 83 fire call came in on the morning of December 6 it would have been routine had it not been for Constant Upham.
Upham owned a north end general store and was among the few residents in that area with a home telephone. He could see that the fire abourd the munitions ship Mont Blanc was far more serious than burning embers, and phoned all the surrounding fire halls to tell them so. Firefighters from West Street, Brunswick Street, Gottingen Street, and Quinpool Road all responded to Upham’s call.
Patricia’s driver, Billy Wells, was proud of his job as driver of Halifax’s first completely motorized chemical fire engine. Wells often raced to dockyard fires against his brother Claude, a Firefighter at the Brunswick Street station who drove Chief Edward Condon’s fancy McLaughlin Buick roadster. Claude usually won the race, but he was off duty that day.
Patricia left one on duty Firefighter in the station when it responded to Box 83. The man had come into work that day despite having a serious bout of the flu, and was in the bathroom when the alarm came in. He couldn’t come out in time despite the chief’s anger.
When the Firefighters arrived at Pier 6 the heat was so intense they couldn’t look at it. Chief Condon pulled the Box 83 a second time to get additional help. John Spruin, a retired and respected fireman, heard the alarm, put on his fire suit and drove a horse drawn pumper along Brunswick Street. He was killed on the way by shrapnel from the Mont Blanc.
Located near the explosions epicentre, Patricia’s crew never knew what hit them . . . except for Billy Wells. Wells was ripped from the drivers seat of the Patricia and thrown quite a distance. His right arm and eye were badly injured, but he hung on to the engines smashed steering wheel. Moments later a tidal wave carried him up and back down Richmond Hill. He got tangled up in telephone wires and almost drowned.
Chief Condon’s McLaughlin roadster was wrecked, as were the other pumpers. Both chiefs and the rest of Patricia’s crew were killed, as were the departments wagon horses. Thirty firemen and 120 volunteers who survived the explosion pushed themselves and their apparatus to the limit to douse the wooden houses on fire. News of the explosion spread quickly and within hours trains arrived carrying firemen, apparatus and hose. However, the hose connections were not standardized and many could not be connected into Halifax’s’ system. Equipment was standardized immediately after the fire.
Research Credit & Monument Background
The research above and the memorial project originated in 1988 by Halifax Fire Fighter Dave Singer when his son could not find any information on the Halifax Fire Department’s role in the 1917 explosion. He knew nine men had died on the Patricia, but he wanted to know who these men were, and how they responded that morning. Most of all he wanted them to be remembered by more than just their families. In 1992 his efforts were given a further boost by the involvement of Captain Don Snider, who took on fund raising for the project, and Fire Fighter Vince Whalen.
On December 6, 1992, the 75th anniversary of the explosion, the Halifax Fire Fighters Memorial was unveiled at a ceremony in front of Halifax Fire Department’s Station 6 (currently Station 4) on Lady Hammond Road in memory of the Fire Fighters who lost their lives in the explosion. The monument, which is 9 feet high, is constructed of black polished granite mounted on a red granite pedestal with a concrete base. On its front, facing HalifaxHarbour, is the figure of a fire fighter in full uniform. The inscription at the base reads:
THIS MONUMENT IS DEDICATED TO THE NINE MEMBERS OF THE HALIFAX FIRE DEPARTMENT WHO LOST THEIR LIVES WHILE FIGHTING A FIRE ON THE SS MONT BLANC ON DECEMBER 6, 1917 DEDICATED DECEMBER 6, 1992.
FIRE CHIEF EDWARD P. CONDON
DEPUTY CHIEF WILLIAM P. BRUNT
CAPTAIN WILLIAM T. BRODERICK
CAPTAIN MICHAEL MALTUS
HOSEMAN JOHN SPRUIN
HOSEMAN WALTER HENNESSY
HOSEMAN FRANK KILLEEN
HOSEMAN FRANK LEAHY
HOSEMAN JOHN DUGGAN
ERECTED BY THE MEMBERS OF THE HALIFAX FIRE DEPARTMENT
In 1992, the year of the dedication, and every year since, the Halifax Fallen Firefighters Committee along with the Fire Department Honour Guard has held a ceremony at the memorial in honour of the nine firefighters who lost their lives in the explosion and all other HRM Firefighters who have died in the line of duty.