Last night I happened to catch the 2003 TV movie, Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion which is based on the 1917 explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax Harbour, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I had missed this movie the first time it came around, and caught an hour of it another time. Last night I was determined to watch it in its entirety.
|Halifax pre-explosion with Dartmouth on right across the channel. (wikipedia)|
Twelve hours later, I’m still reeling from the death and devastation I witnessed on my wide-screen TV which cannot compare in any fashion with what actually happened on Dec 6, 1917 when a munitions ship carrying 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzol exploded. It has been labeled as one of the biggest man-made explosions in history – second only the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in WW2.
|Taken 15-20 secs after the explosion. (wikipedia)|
The facts on what the munitions ship was carrying is real. The facts on what happened after are staggering – almost 2,000 dead, 9,000 injured, 6,000 homeless, and every building within 2.6 kilometres (1.6 miles) was destroyed or badly damaged.
|Halifax after the explosion, looking across channel to Dartmouth. (wikipedia)|
If you read the Wikipedia commentary on the movie, you basically see all the faults of the movie and how it wasn’t historically accurate due to the addition of a subplot and other liberalities used to make the production more of an entertainment vehicle. However, I’m not here to judge the movie, but to bring attention to the author of the book who inspired the movie in the first place.
Janet Kitz, a 1980 anthropology student of Saint Mary's University, chose the event as the topic of a paper. At the time, the horrific explosion was a mere tragic event in Halifax’s past without much publicity attached to it. Kitz’s research led her to a basement where small woven sacks of 1917 unclaimed personal effects called “mortuary bags” had sat undisturbed for decades. Intrigued, she delved into the research of eye-witness accounts, records, and artifacts wherever she could find them including the Halifax Relief Commission, Halifax Museum, Nova Scotia Provincial Archives, and second-hand stores. Personal stories were garnered from survivors – mere children in 1917.
Kitz brought all the materials and interviews together into book form under the title, Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery. Published in 1989, it sparked a new interest in the Halifax Explosion which led to the production of the TV movie.
The Halifax Explosion is an in-depth website with photo and media galleries as well as a teacher’s resource section.
It just goes to show you how research into one historic event can bring to light the stories of people who have been lost and forgotten, and whose stories need to be told by someone just curious enough to seek them out.
Writers: Do events like this incite you to write?
Readers: Do you like reading about true events mingled with fiction?