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Eric: A moment of history, a remembrance of heroism

Ninety years ago today, a man with a wife and children, a life and a future had a realization. A moment of clarity.

Ninety years ago today, the world was at war -- this was 1917, and the Central Powers were marching across Europe and the Allies were fighting them. U-Boats were trawling the shipping lanes sinking freighters to keep ammunition and munitions and arms out of the hands of the men they were fighting. The ships therefore took to running incognito, lacking the ensigns and markings that warned other ships that their cargos were volatile.

Ninety years ago today, the French civilian cargo ship S.S. Mont-Blanc was steaming from New York City to form up with a convey carrying munitions to the front. They were unmarked to avoid the U-Boats. The ship carried two hundred and fifty tons of TNT, two hundred and forty six tons of benzol, sixty two tons of guncotton, one thousand, seven hundred and sixty six tons of wet picric acid, six hundred tons of dry picric acid, forty-one sailors and one captain. They had been forced to spend the night before outside of Halifax Harbor, where they were going to form up with the rest of their convy, because the antisubmarine nets had already been raised. So they were late as they steamed into the harbor.

Ninety years ago today, the Norwegian supply ship the S.S. Ivo was steaming out of Halifax Harbor. It was going to be loading up with livestock as a part of a relief effort for Belgium, which was suffering the privations of War. At this time, it was running empty, and it was running behind as well. It had a crew of forty, including their own Captain.

A combination of events and other ships put the Imo and the Mont-Blanc on a collision course, both running at speed.

Both stayed their course, and both sent signals by whistle that they intended to stay the course. It was, perhaps, a grand game of Chicken, only with some sixty four hundred tons displacement worth of ships, one of which was carrying almost three thousand tons of explosives.

The problem with Chicken is it's only won when one side blinks. Someone has to decide that their lives are worth more than their right of way, even when they're convinced that they're right. It's reasonable to assume that the Captains of both ships knew they were right in this. It's also reasonable to assume neither captain wanted a collision.

The problem was, both the Imo and the Mont-Blanc blinked at the same time. They both simultaneously evaded, and they both evaded in the same direction. Which led, inexorably, to a collision.

A collision which set the Mont-Blanc on fire.

The French crew abandoned ship -- there was little else to be done. There wasn't enough time to try and put out the fire, and the Frenchmen knew the explosives would go up. They shouted to all that would hear that the ship was laden heavy with destructive power and was on fire, but being French they shouted in French, and as it turns out very few understood them.

The harbor responded as they normally would -- they sent assistance in, to rescue people and put the fire out.

The people of Halifax, having heard the collision, turned out in force on what was an unusually warm, almost Indian Summer like day, going out onto the docks to watch the show. Crowding down. Not understanding the crew that was fleeing for their lives. Not having any of the proper flags or warnings to tell everyone the ship was a munitions ship.

Ninety years ago today, the Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbor.

The force was unimaginable at the time. No manmade explosion had ever come close to the magnitude of this blast. Indeed, until Hiroshima no explosion would come close. The blockbuster bombs and shelling of European targets throughout World War II didn't come close to the monumental explosion of the Mont-Blanc decades before. The shock wave devestated Halifax, slaughtering the crowds on the docks, shattering and damaging structures throughout, blowing in windows for miles around. The fireball from the Mont Blanc rose over a mile in the air, creating a full on mushroom cloud that could be seen for miles. They heard the explosion and felt tremors from it as far away as Cape Breton, over two hundred miles to the east.

All those people, crowded down by the docks. Caught in a wave of pure decimation. The power was so great it blew the harbor dry, creating a tsunami that washed through Halifax. As stated, it was a warm day -- but this was still December, which meant there were lamps and stoves going, fueled by fuel that burnt, with reserves stocked high against the winter. Which meant that in the aftermath of the blast and the tsunami, Halifax burned. On the other side of the harbor, the Mi'kmaq settlement in Tuft's Cove was completed, instantly destroyed. The settlement would be entirely abandoned after the disaster.

The devastation hampered rescue and relief efforts, and those efforts were made all the harder the next day, when a blizzard hit the still decimated city. Sixteen inches of snow came down, wind swept through, and people trapped in the wreckage couldn't be reached or died from exposure. Houses all over halifax had to be sealed with tar paper since the glass of so many windows was destroyed.

As many as sixteen hundred people died instantly in the explosion. Some four hundred or more died in the aftermath. Over nine thousand people were injured -- and more Nova Scotians died in the blast than died in all the rest of World War I combined. Many survivors were permanently disabled. In today's money, after adjusting for inflation, more than half a billion dollars worth of damage came from this blast

But we opened this gruesome remembrance by speaking not of the thousands killed or injured, but by speaking of one man. One man who had a moment of clarity. A realization.

The man's name was P. Vincent "Vince" Coleman, and he worked for the Railroad. He was a dispatcher, and his station was down in the trainyard, which itself was down by the docks. And as it turns out, he understood the danger. He heard what the sailors said. He knew -- he knew that the Mont Blanc was carrying munitions, and that it was on fire. And like any rational man he started to flee.

And then he stopped, because he was the train dispatcher, and he knew that the passenger train from Saint John, New Brunswick, was due any moment.

There were three hundred people on that train.

Vince Coleman had a family, and a life, and could almost certainly have escaped death, if not harm. But in that moment of clarity, he turned around, ran back into his office, and started tapping out morse code. A fast message. A desperate message, rendered into dots and dashes and sent down the line.

Stop trains. Munition ship on fire. Making for Pier 6. Goodbye.

Vince Coleman did not make it out of his office. The Mont Blanc exploded. He was killed.

But the inbound from Saint John stopped, less than four miles from the station. Had the message not gone out, it almost certainly would have either entered the blast radius and been blown apart, the cars tossed like toys, or hit the twisted and destroyed track and derailed. Either way, many if not all of her crew and passengers would have been instantly killed.

There were other repercussions of this message. Because of it, news of the disaster spread like lightning down the wire, allowing for relief and rescue efforts to be immediately mobilized. Further, the train that Coleman had saved was immediately pressed into service, bringing survivors to safety where they could receive care and shelter. Almost certainly, Vince Coleman saved a lot more lives than the three hundred people on that train.

But that three hundred would be more than enough. Much more than enough.

It's always hard to say "what would I do," in situations like this. Our natural impulse is to say we'd have acted the way Vince Coleman did. Of course we would. Save three hundred people, including children? It seems like a no-brainer. But it's easy to say that when you're sitting at a desk typing. It seems far more likely that I'd have thought of my fiancee -- thought of my friends and family. Thought of people I knew that I could try to save. Thought of myself. And no one would think the less of me. We don't castigate those people who fled to save their own lives in Halifax that day. It was a natural reaction. A human reaction. It was no more cowardly an act than jumping out of the way of oncoming traffic. We are wired to survive -- to fight for survival.

It takes will and courage and dedication to overcome that impulse. It takes honest to God heroism. It takes something that we all hope we have, but we never know we have until the moment arrives.

Vince Coleman had it.

Ninety years ago today, a man named Vince Coleman made the stark, specific choice to die so that at least three hundred people could live. In the wake of one of the worst disasters to ever hit the North American continent, Vince Coleman chose the lives of three hundred strangers over his own life. He sacrificed himself. He sacrificed his continued presence with his family. He sacrificed his future.

But he became, in that moment, an icon. He became a hero.

On this, the ninetieth anniversary of the Halifax Explosion, I choose to remember Vince Coleman. For those who have not heard the story, I pass it to you. For those who have, I help remind you. Sometimes, heroism comes from choosing your duty over yourself.

And if you're out driving, and you see someone in your lane coming towards you, for Christ's sake stop well away from him and let him past. I don't care who has the right of way. It's not worth your life, much less everyone else's.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at December 6, 2007 1:46 PM


Comment from: PerfessorEvil [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 2:11 PM

Dang it, Merriam Webster accepts that "Decimate" has more meanings than to reduce by 1/10th, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Aside from that... Dude. Not cool to try to make me cry at work. Well said.

Comment from: Imaria [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 2:12 PM

I've seen the Canadian "Moment in History" for this event a thousand times and a thousand times again, and it became a trite and meaningless segment.

This... this got the message across with far more meaning, as well as simply far more relevant detail.

Well done, and thank you.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 4:36 PM


Ultimately, I feel pity for Mr. Coleman, though. Not for his choice - it was an admirable and commendable decision. But I pity him because it was the stupidity and stubbornness of many other people that required him to make that choice.

It's a damned shame when someone's admirable qualities get known because someone else seriously fouled up.

Comment from: Jason [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 5:34 PM

32: I'd posit that truly admirable people usually only have a chance to show those qualities because of someone else's screw-up. Accidents happen, of course: If waves or the wind had somehow blown the ships into each other the results would have been the same, minus the initial stupidity. But it just seems to me that without that kind of stupid, people's most admirable traits wouldn't be needed. Or maybe I'm just cynical.

As a minor bit of trivia, one of my fragmentary memories from Naval ROTC is of how to pass another ship. If I'm remembering right, the default is to pass port-to-port (in other words, with the left sides of the ships across from each other). Or as another way of looking at it, when in doubt turn right. I wonder if Halifax wasn't a partial inspiration for that "rule", to make sure people don't dodge into each other.

Comment from: MasonK [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 5:39 PM

Wow. I mean, wow.

I knew about the Halifax Harbor thing, but this is the first I've heard of Coleman. That's quite a story.

Comment from: 32_footsteps [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 6:20 PM

I'd counter that, Jason, in that the people are no less admirable just because you don't see their qualities. If the accident hadn't occurred, Coleman would have been just as good of a man - he just would have been alive to spread that along longer.

One question - how do we know that Coleman left his post and then returned? From the story, I gather that nobody as close to the scene as Coleman survived - how do we know he didn't just stay resolutely in the first place? I'm not saying it matters either way. It just suddenly struck me as odd that said detail would be known.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 6:24 PM

Actually, the Port to Port rule was already in effect. However the Ivo had agreed suspend that rule and pass starboard-to-starboard with another ship, which needed clearance to dock. That put the Ivo in the wrong place, to my knowledge with the Harbormaster's approval.

In other words, the Mont Blanc had the technical right of way, the Ivo had gotten approval for its location, and... well, you know the rest.

Comment from: Eric Burns [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 6:27 PM

32 -- if I recall correctly, the sailor who told Coleman about the imminent explosion saw him go back to his office.

Comment from: Jason [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 6, 2007 9:54 PM

32, I don't think we're disagreeing. Not entirely, anyway. Coleman still would have been the kind of man to put 300 people ahead of himself when it really mattered -- without the two bullheaded captains it's just that we would have never known.

My idea wasn't that the situation makes people virtuous, it's just that many virtuous people go through their lives not showing (maybe not even knowing themselves) what they're truly capable of. Which is just fine by me -- in a perfect world people wouldn't be placed in a position to have to make the choice that Coleman did. That he made that decision just showed everybody else what was there all along. As you said, it's a shame that he had to.

My angle was that for an extraordinary situation like that to come up, where a person shows what they're truly made of, probably happens more often than not because of someone else's (giant) mistake.

Eric: Thanks for the info. I would have figured the rule was in place by then, but someone obviosuly turned the "wrong" way. Didn't know about the suspension of the rule for the third ship.

Comment from: Piels [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 7, 2007 12:08 AM

Earlier today, I was wondering why I still read Websnark. Thank you for reminding me.

Comment from: sun tzu [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 7, 2007 6:44 AM

Inspiring. In a "Chicken Soup for the Soul" kind of way. (Although, yeah, I find myself wondering how we can know some of the story's details if the explosion was powerful enough to kill everyone in the vicinity...)

Comment from: Kaychsea [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 7, 2007 9:38 AM

Nice story. Well written.


If the train was stopped four miles away, after the wire had been decoded and passed on to the signallers, and Coleman was killed after making the transmission, isn't it likely that it would never have been caught up in the events? It is likely to have been stopped after Coleman was already dead, unless he stayed to tidy his desk.

Comment from: Andrew Grilz [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 7, 2007 10:23 AM

Quoting from an Alex Beam column in the Boston Globe, circa 2006:

In the early afternoon of Dec. 6, 1917, the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety received a telegram from Halifax, relayed via Havana, Cuba: ''Hundreds of persons were killed and a thousand others injured and half the city of Halifax is in ruins as the result of the explosion on a munitions ship in the harbour today." Massachusetts governor Samuel McCall and several prominent businessmen immediately formed a Halifax Relief Expedition and arranged for a special Boston & Maine train filled with doctors, Red Cross staffers -- and Globe reporter A.J. Philpott -- to depart that evening.

Alas, Halifax had suffered a double whammy. On the heels of the huge explosion came a severe blizzard that made travel almost impossible. Relief Commission chairman Abraham Ratshesky had hoped to make the trip in a record 22 hours. Because of the blizzard, the relief train arrived a day later than planned.

The Bostonians were greeted by the president of the Canadian Government Railway, a Springfield native, and by Robert Borden, prime minister of Canada, who had been campaigning in nearby Prince Edward Island. As author Laura MacDonald points out in her just-published account of the explosion, ''Curse of the Narrows," the politic Borden told the Americans that theirs was the first relief train to arrive. In fact, other relief trains from neighboring provinces had already reached Halifax.

But no one talked down the Bostonians' remarkable contributions. The Massachusetts State Guard Medical Unit helped set up the city's first post-explosion emergency hospital. A complete medical unit sent from the Harvard Medical School staffed yet another. Christian Scientists paid for a relief train carrying clothing, food, $10,000 in cash -- and doctors. ''A strange contradiction," according to the Chicago Post.

The Boston Symphony performed a sellout benefit concert for Halifax relief, featuring soprano Nellie Melba and violinist Fritz Kreisler. The Massachusetts Automobile Club sent a fleet of trucks northward, and MacDonald writes that ''a riot nearly broke out" when a flood of Bostonians tried to donate supplies for a boat headed to Halifax.

Which is why in 1918, Halifax began a tradition of sending a Christmas tree to the City of Boston, and has done so every year now since 1971.

Good story, bro. I needed to be reminded that, when put to the test, people can sometimes be the people they want to be.

Comment from: Thomas Blight [TypeKey Profile Page] posted at December 9, 2007 8:00 PM

I wonder sometimes, if people are aware they're about to die, and choose to help someone else, or if they're simply trying to help someone else before they get away themselves. We view the former as more honourable, the ultimate sacrifice and all that, but I think really it's the same thing.

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