The massive explosion that devastated Halifax 100 years ago tested all who survived, including a handful of reporters who were the first to get news of the unfolding disaster to the world.
“Their writing stimulated the remarkable relief response that rolled into the city, not only from Nova Scotia and Canada but from the United States,” says Michael Dupuis, author of the recently published book “Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion.”
The Dec. 6, 1917, blast – the largest human-caused explosion before the first atomic bomb – followed a collision in Halifax harbour between the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Norwegian-flagged Belgian relief vessel Imo.
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Dupuis’s book recounts the efforts of more than two dozen journalists, including James Hickey, bureau superintendent for The Canadian Press.
Dupuis said he not only wanted to honour their work, but also to find out how the massive story was handled. He said the contributions of print journalists proved key in an age before even radio stations.
The marine disaster, which killed 2,000 people and injured 9,000 more, turned out to be a proving ground for the fledgling Canadian Press, then just three months old.
“It hadn’t really had its teeth cut on a big story,” Dupuis said of Canada’s national news wire service.
The 48-year-old Hickey, who was also an editor for the Halifax Chronicle in addition to being a stringer for The New York Times, was in the Chronicle building on Granville Street in downtown Halifax when the blast shattered a glass door, injuring his left hand and arm.
“His first instincts were to get the news and within 30 minutes he found a working wire and sent that (alert) out and it landed at AP New York,” said Dupuis.
Hickey made several attempts to find a working cable before he was finally helped by John Hagen, manager of the Halifax and Bermuda Cable Company.
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Hickey’s initial 100-word bulletin was bolstered later that day by his 2,500 word Canadian Press dispatch, which provided a remarkably accurate account of the disaster. The story ran country-wide and was also picked up by The Associated Press in the U.S.
His work amazes Hickey’s great granddaughter, who said it was only in recent years that family members have come to realize the role he played that fateful day.
In an interview from her home in New Jersey, Eileen Rouse said that Hickey’s role in covering the 1912 Titanic disaster – Halifax had been the main destination for survivors and the bodies found adrift at sea after the ship’s sinking – had been better known to family members than his journalism following the explosion.
“When I found out what my great-grandfather had done it was just amazing,” said Rouse.
“I can’t imagine him pulling everything together and going out into the streets and seeing the carnage that he saw and still be able to do what he was trained to do, which is report and get the news out.”
The publisher of the daily newspaper in Truro, N.S., also became a pivotal figure after he was informed of the disaster through a Canadian Press phone call transmitted by way of Amherst, N.S. – something made necessary because many of the communication lines out of Halifax were down.
A.B. Coffin promptly got out his own bulletin then hopped in a taxi for the stricken city, a trip that took three hours.
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Author and explosion researcher Janet Maybee said Coffin also alerted Truro’s mayor, who was able to quickly put together a team of doctors, nurses and firefighters that left for Halifax by rail.
“They were the first trainload of rescue people to get there from outside Halifax,” said Maybee. “The fact that they (journalists) got that first bulletin and then passed it along meant that help started coming in from all over the province.”
Maybee said Truro, which at the time had no public hospital, eventually received a train carrying about 250 wounded and homeless people.
Other local journalists also went above and beyond the call of duty to get the news out, according to Dupuis, including the only working journalist killed that day.
Jack Ronayne, a marine reporter for the Daily Echo, learned about a ship burning in the harbour and decided to investigate. He had crossed a railway foot bridge and was about 300 metres from Mont Blanc as it floundered off Pier 6 when it exploded.
Dupuis said Ronayne was later found in a ditch moaning, having sustained horrible facial injuries. Ronayne died soon after.
Despite the fact that Ronayne didn’t write a word, Dupuis said his story stands as a reminder of the risks that are inherent with reporting disasters.
“As I learned about this story I thought I thought it was pretty courageous,” Dupuis said.
“He didn’t know that it (Mont Blanc) was going to blow, but nevertheless he was chasing the story.”