Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917 Chapter Ten

AT 6:00 P.M. , Harvey Jones, the editor of the Daily Echo, stood in the shadow of a row of stone buildings at the end of the Pickford & Black Wharf. He was waiting for the same tug that had dropped Hayes off at the Imo earlier that morning. Pickford & Black were the agents for many of the ships damaged in the explosion, including the Imo, and Jones wanted to be onboard when they did their inspection. It was dark, the city in blackout, and he could barely see in front of him. When the tug arrived, he climbed on carefully; the deck was slick from the black rain. Standing on the port side, looking to

his left as the tug pulled out, the hills of Richmond soon came into view. Individual fires still burned, their flames teasing the night sky, but most smaller buildings—the houses, barns, and stores that he had passed so many times before when he covered stories at the dockyard—were burned out. All that was left was smoldering bright orange and red patches. A tree on fire leapt out like a character from a children’s storybook. A slight pink cast could be seen toward the west, and aside from the rank odor, the air had the dry clarity of impending snow. He looked up at the sky as the tug labored through the black water. Even in a tug, it was rocky sailing. Debris bumped against the tug’s nose and sides as they passed the docks. Ships were everywhere too, some on top of each other, others listing in the water, still others anchored in awkward spots. Whole wharves were gone, either smashed or burned. On the other side of the harbor, they could just make out the Imo, brooding and abandoned by the Dartmouth shore.

They pulled up alongside the Middleham Castle, and a couple of men scrambled aboard to search for corpses, returning shortly with a man’s body balanced on a plank between them. They warned Jones that he would not want to see it. The men hoisted the plank over the rail and lowered it into the tug, but just as Jones thought it was safe, the board tilted to one side, revealing a corpse with a smashed skull. The brain rolled out and plopped down next to his feet. Jones looked away. His body felt heavy, and for the first time that day he felt tired.

After the Middleham Castle, they crossed the harbor to the Imo. Her four

masts were intact, but the rigging hung limp and much of the middle deck was flattened. The bow was still light, resting slightly higher in the water. The last letters of Belgian Relief were underwater. Jones grabbed onto the freezing ladder and crawled up the side after the Pickford & Black men. As far as he knew, they were the first people to board the ship since it had left port that morning, and only their echoing footsteps answered when they called out. It was not true, of course. The crew from the Highflyer had come along and evacuated the crew shortly after the explosion, and they were staying onboard the destroyer until the military and the city decided if there would be an inquiry. Anxious not to be left alone, Jones followed the others to the bridge, nearly tripping over two dead men on the forecastle-head. He slowed his step, shuffling along with more caution.

He could not make out much. When they reached the bridge, a man called out and they gathered around the lifeboat. It was the pilot,William Hayes. Jones could just make out the outline of a man crouched under the lifeboat, as if he were trying to protect himself. They stood in the moonlight, staring at Hayes’s mute body, as if it could explain what happened, before turning toward the captain’s quarters. Jones hastened to catch up,

sandwiching himself between two men for safety and feeling his way through the dark passage with his hands outstretched. He took short steps because he dreaded tripping again. A tingle of fear spread up his neck. He was cold and, he admitted to himself, scared. All the excitement was gone; the adrenaline dissipated. “I was feeling kind of blue. There was nothing left to do now but clean up.” The twisted metal creaked and groaned around them as if the ship itself were in pain. A sudden howl of agony

and mourning sent another shiver up his spine. The fellow behind him bolted back to the tug, leaving Jones’s back unprotected. Jones briefly considered joining him when the bellow sounded again from inside the cabin. The man in front of Jones grabbed the handle and threw back the door. From the darkness Captain From’s dog lunged and then retreated in a menacing crouch, snarling and barking. The men backed into the corridor, laughing off their shock. The dog must have been locked away since morning. The cabin was a wreck, with the wood paneling strewn across the floor.When they tried to coax the dog outside, lowering their voices to a soothing murmur, the dog would neither leave nor let them in, crouching lower and pulling its lip back into a snarl. It’s gone mad, Jones thought to himself. A soldier stepped forward and shot it. A quick yelp died in the darkness as the blast echoed through the Imo’s empty hull.

THERE WERE NO NEWSPAPERS that night. No radio. The hospitals and the morgue were still too busy to compile lists of who was where, and as night settled in more people arrived at City Hall requesting information about what to do, where to find their family, where to go for medical help. Most people were more desperate for information than for food, but officials had little news to offer them and many left with more cheese than information.

At suppertime, cadets, volunteer units of teenage boys, were called to duty at City Hall. Ginger Fraser got the word at 6:00 p.m. that night when a knock sounded on the front door. The soldier told Ginger’s mother that all cadets had been ordered to report to City Hall immediately. Ginger had arrived home only a few hours before. The front door swung idly open.

“Mother. Mother?”

He ran into the living room, then halfway up the stairs, but no one answered, so he skittered back down the stairs to the kitchen. A slight wind blew in through the northern windows where the wooden sashes had been torn from the brick wall. The stovepipe was cracked in half and a dusting of soot covered the kitchen. The abandoned breakfast table looked like a macabre still life. A skin of black soot floated on the pitcher of milk, and blood was smeared across the table. “Then I really began to worry. I ran from room to room yelling my head off.” He knew that the blood had to belong to his mother or one of his sisters.

When he heard voices drift in from outside, Ginger ran onto the porch only to discover that it was his neighbors, not his mother, as he had hoped. He asked them where everyone had gone, and they told him soldiers had come around to evacuate them to Collins Field on the corner of South Street. Relieved to hear that his family was just another among the crowds he had seen with Everett, he sat down on the porch. Mrs. Fraser and his sisters appeared on Morris Street soon after. Jean Fraser’s hand was heavily bandaged. Ginger’s mother told him she had been cut at the breakfast table.

“A nasty gash.” She looked Ginger over for injuries. “Are you alright?”


“Well you had better find your Dad. He has been to your school and to the hospital looking for you. He met one of your schoolmates and he had said that ‘Ginger was all cut and bleeding.’ ”

Ginger had not noticed that his hand was scratched, and the dried blood from where he had wiped his face made him look much worse than he was. His father arrived home shortly afterward, and Ginger was surprised when he appeared relieved to see him. He was convinced that he was going to get into trouble. They spent the afternoon sealing up the dining room for the winter.

Ginger, who was an officer, was not only pleased to get out of more cleaning, but was excited to be called upon to serve. With some pride, he changed into his uniform and made his way to City Hall, where he found autos waiting with the motors running, dropping off and picking up medical staff. The cadets were divided into three groups. The first group worked with the medical committee at City Hall. That day the military set up thirteen dressing stations across the city, which provided both immediate medical attention and a waiting area for those seeking hospitalization. Pools of doctors and nurses remained at the stations and whenever a call came in to City Hall, medical personnel were dispatched within half an hour. Cadets ran back and forth with addresses, names, and requests. The second group delivered food baskets to families who called City Hall. The third, and the largest, best-known group, were sent out as messengers. When the lines opened up, thousands of telegrams asking for information about relatives jammed the circuits. Cadets were sent to deliver them, but it was not easy work because many of them were for people in the North End. Old addresses had to be cross-checked with new. “At least two thirds of the ones we tried to deliver we couldn’t because there was no house left standing there and nobody there. So we had to take them back to the telegraph office.”

Ginger was assigned to deliver food. City Hall was crowded with volunteers, survivors, and people dropping off donations. Food distributors, farmers, and private citizens arrived with boxes of food that were sorted by type so that pickers could assemble balanced packages for delivery. All afternoon the food committee had sent out baskets of bread, milk, and butter to whoever requested one. They planned to open three other depots by morning to ensure that children had milk for breakfast. All night Ginger ran the baskets up and down the stairs, dropping off food to workers in the building and outside to the chauffeurs driving the medical staff around the city. One of the doctors who arrived at City Hall that night was Dr. George Cox.

Thursday night, as the Lulan rounded the Bedford Basin toward Rockingham Junction, doubts about whether Cox and the rest of the doctors would be needed passed into silence.* A thick, fawn-colored smoke obscured the view of the outer harbor and the Dartmouth shore. Shredded wood—remnants of wharves, houses, and boats—bobbed in unwelcoming gray-green water. The train ground to a halt alongside the station, and Cox gathered up his belongings and carried them outside. Neither an official nor a car appeared to guide them. After some discussion, his party agreed that they should walk toward downtown, but the winter light was failing and night quickly overtook them. Rockingham was the second to last stop on the North line, four miles from North Station and neighbor to Africville, an impoverished black community that had sprung up on the Basin side of Richmond Hill along with the railroad. This tiny village greeted them with what would quickly become the explosion’s hallmark: Tilted, windowless, and doorless houses stared at them like shell-shocked soldiers. Despite this introduction, Cox was still unprepared for what he would see when his party rounded the hill. Richmond was gone. And the detritus that replaced it no more resembled the neighborhood than a pile of unraveled wool resembled a sweater. They could make no sense of the geography because the order of streets was demolished, leaving them to grope about in the dark with only the jets of flame shooting out of basements for light. The party picked their way around the debris and the dead with little concern for themselves, the gentle moans, calling out from under the debris, a constant reminder that their suffering was incidental. As Cox passed the corpses of men stacked one on top of the other, he mistakenly assumed that looters had left them there. Dr. W. B. Moore, who had made the same journey two hours before, was most affected by the blackened tree trunks “standing, gaunt and spectral like, as it were, the outpost sentinels of their kingdom.” The twisted and mangled landscape, intertwined with the half-dead and the still suffering, reminded him of the scenes in Dante’s Inferno, which he had seen at a movie theater some years

before. “The rows of blackened and often half naked and twisted bodies of the dead, through which we picked our way, made a weird and desolate spectacle, the depressing effects of which could only be understood by those unfortunate enough to witness it.” Farther south, the party met a group of officials who sent them to City Hall, where Weatherbe assigned Cox to Camp Hill.

Cox rested as the party motored in silence past the darkened fields. As the car made its way past the protection of the Citadel, the wind buffeted the windows and a few snowflakes teased in and out of the low headlights. The moon, lost in cloud cover, provided no light, and the car bounced past the graveyard toward the hospital entrance in total darkness. When they arrived, the distant voices of soldiers and the soft murmur of conversation greeted them. Groups of three or four stood together wrapped in blankets, sheets, and military coats, children in their parents’ arms, asleep. Others gathered at the entrance, pushing their way inside, frustrated by still more people trying to exit. Mothers stood holding the hands of tired children. Others roamed through the crowd, calling out unanswered names into the night. The same black soot Cox saw on his walk through Richmond reappeared, although some who had tried to clean their faces now wore a light gray smudge that further highlighted their lack of expression. As he stepped into the crush of sooty blankets close to the door, the soft murmur separated into whispers.

Have you seen my father? . . . A soldier told me that my wife would be here—he carried my baby up Russell Street and that was the last I saw of him. . . . He’s just two years old. . . . The house is gone. I got my silver out. . . . Poor Aunt Hester. . . . We will find her, my love.

Taking a breath, he squeezed through what would have been the front doors had there been doors. Single bulbs scattered along the hallway threw pale light over the wounded lying in the corridors. A glance into the wards revealed hundreds of people squeezed together on a carpet of mattresses that covered the floors entirely. Men slept underneath beds, and whole families gathered on a single mattress. The burned lay uncovered, unable to bear anything against their raw skin. Fractures abounded and it was not unusual to see a foot or an arm facing the wrong direction. Onlookers trailed one another down thin paths and across mattresses, bending over those lying on the floor, trying to distinguish a relative, a friend, or a neighbor. The hospital seemed to have no order—children beside adults, dying beside the scratched—few staff, and yet, there was no hysteria. Eyes sought out his as he passed through the hall, but no one appealed for his help. Looking inside an office, hoping to find someone in charge, he found people curled on top of desks while still more slept underneath. The windows were covered with boards and blankets, but the cold wind passed through like one more unwanted patient.

At the end of the hall, Cox turned into a spacious room where single bulbs dangled over long tables on top of which lay dimly lit patients. It was, he presumed, the dining room. Young women and teenaged cadets appeared and disappeared without comment, leaving Cox to make his way through the wounded in silence. The next door revealed the kitchen. Here, with some relief, he made out the silhouette of an acquaintance working in front of a table. Others were operating mutely on the floor. With little discussion, Cox opened his bag, took out his tools, and started to set a broken bone. It was just after 6:00 p.m.

Upstairs a young woman named Dorothy McMurray was trying to comfort forty injured patients. She had arrived at the hospital in the afternoon, shortly after realizing that, as a VAD with certificates in nursing and first aid, she was required to report for duty. Her problem was that she could not find anyone to take her. She had tried to report to Clara MacIntosh, but found Clara’s house empty—MacIntosh was helping her husband attend the wounded in the Commons. As she turned to walk down the stairs, cars sped past her, carrying wounded to the hospital. She crossed the street, determined to report directly to the hospital. “After vainly trying to push my way through the mobs to find somebody who could tell me what to do, I realized I was on my own and as I needed a pair of scissors to cut bandages I fought my way upstairs looking for them.”

Upstairs, the halls were no better than the market on a crowded morning—people everywhere and no one serving anyone. She walked past the injured, poking her head into rooms on the lookout for scissors or any kind of useful supplies. As she approached a large ward near the end of the hall, a low sad moan from a side office caught her attention and she leaned her head inside. Forty people looked back at her. She glanced around the room, taking a brief survey—“a tangle of dental equipment and dental chairs.” Many had open wounds without any kind of dressing at all. It occurred to her that some of them might be dying. She really did not know. It was a scene quite beyond her training and her years. She asked if anyone had been in to help them and they answered no. One person lay on the floor with her chest smashed flat. Another’s limb was bent the wrong way. Still others appeared to be moaning themselves into unconsciousness. Although there was little she could do for them other than bringing them water and keeping them warm, Dorothy stayed with them until morning. Downstairs, Cox looked around the room for an empty table but, finding none, squatted next to a patient on the floor. In the dim light he could make out plaster and glass on the floors. It was almost twelve hours since the explosion and some of the wounded, exhausted and depleted by cold and lack of food, fell asleep. Through the night, doctors tried to make out who was sleeping and who could be carried out on a stretcher. Cox got to work, setting broken bones temporarily, but without benefit of X ray it was little more than an educated guess. Almost all the patients had accompanying skin wounds. Young girls dropped hefty blue tablets of antiseptics into hot water and rushed their porcelain bowls through the wards trying not to spill them. Nurses—when available—dipped their cloths into the fresh bowls and scrubbed the wounds, hoping to separate the black dye and tar from the raw skin. Cox chose his cases based on the appearance of suffering, whether it was the wound itself or the intensity of groans. Through palpation, an examination by touch, he discovered hidden bits of metal, glass, and even household items deep inside the wounds. “One man yielded up from beneath his shoulder, a piece of the Mont Blanc, one pound . . . there was, strange to say, little infection, considering the dirty nature of the wounds. It is wonderful what good scrubbing will do and the face will do wonderfully.” Incredibly there were no incidents of tetanus. The eye and face damage was as varied as it was depressing, and there was no indication that it would diminish. “Here was the kind of thing one dreams about sometimes, enough cases to keep one going steadily for days and days ahead.” All night Cox moved from his “heaps on the floor” to his colleague’s table, assessing and operating on eyes. As soon as a wound was treated, soldiers appeared and removed the patients to private houses. No car leaving the hospital went empty and new patients appeared as quickly as the last left.

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