Friday, November 25, 2005

Boston angers Nova Scotia

The Boston city government has renamed its Christmas tree the "Holiday" tree. Many are up in arms about this latest tribute to political correctness run amok, from Jerry Falwell to Boston's mayor himself, Thomas Menino, who said he would keep calling the Nova Scotia spruce a "Christmas tree" regardless of what it said on the city's official Web site.
"I grew up with a Christmas tree, I'm going to stay with a Christmas tree," Menino told reporters on Thursday.
The Nova Scotia farmer who cut down the 48 foot tree and donated it on behalf of the people of Nova Scotia angrily said he would not have donated the tree if he had known of the name change.
"I'd have cut it down and put it through the chipper," Donnie Hatt told a Canadian newspaper. "If they decide it should be a holiday tree, I'll tell them to send it back. If it was a holiday tree, you might as well put it up at Easter."
And why did Donnie Hatt donate the tree on behalf of Nova Scotia and why are the people of Nova Scotia so incensed over the renaming of Boston's Christmas tree? Nova Scotia donates the Boston Christmas tree each year as a tribute to the city and the people of Massachusetts for the emergency short term and long term aid given by the city and state to the people of Nova Scotia and the city of Halifax after The Explosion that almost destroyed Halifax and surrounding areas on December 5, 1917. Perhaps you'd like to know a little about this.

The explosion of a munitions ship in the Halifax harbor was the biggest man made explosion in world history and remained so until the Trinity test on July 16, 1945. Metropolitan Halifax, Nova Scotia was almost completely destroyed with some 1900 people killed by the immediate explosion and some 1000 or so dying of their injuries. This in a city of 50,000, or about 6% of the population.

Halifax in 1917 was the Atlantic coast's busiest seaport for supplying troops fighting in Europe in another of the West's several rescues of the French. Ships loading with cargo in New York, Boston, Baltimore, etc. would make their way up the coast to Halifax to join convoys bound for Europe. One such ship was the French flagged Mont-Blanc under the command of Captain Aimé Le Médec. She left New York harbor, heavily loaded with munitions, for Halifax under cover of darkness on the night of December 1. She entered Halifax harbor at about 7:30 A. M. on December 6 under the temporary command of Halifax harbor pilot Francis Mackey. She flew no warning flags as to her cargo as this would have singled her out for German attack.

Halifax Harbor had some traffic problems which were brought on by the shared responsibilities for harbor traffic control. Depending upon the vessel, it might be operating under the control of either Halifax civilian harbor masters or Canadian Royal Navy control or British Royal Navy harbor masters. This made for confusion from time to time and minor collisions between civilian and military vessels were common. The rules for entering and leaving the harbor were somewhat loose. For instance, two ships approaching each other were supposed to obey the rules of the road. That is, each ship was to stay to her right, or starboard side, and clearly signal her intentions. Mostly this worked, but sometimes not. You can see what's coming.

The Mont-Blanc was the largest bomb in terms of size and weight that has ever been assembled by humans, although they didn't realize it while they were loading the ship in New York. She carried the following cargo:
TNT 226,797 kg

Wet picric acid - 1,602,519 kg

Dry picric acid - 544,311 kg

Guncotton - 56,301 kg

Benzol - 223,188 kg

Totals - 2,653,115 kg (2,900 US tons)
By way of comparison, Fat Man, the 25 kiloton-yield bomb dropped on Nagasaki, weighed about 5 tons.

TNT - (2,4,6 trinitrotoluene) was invented in the 1870's. TNT and its cousins release less energy than gasoline. It's the speed of that release, or detonation velocity, that creates a high-pressure blast. The other explosive property of TNT is that it is chemically unstable: relatively little force or shock will cause it to explode. Amongst its advantages, however, are that it can be safely melted using steam or hot water and so poured molten into shell cases.

Benzol - Benzol was a commercial name for the fuel benzene. It is a byproduct of the coal refining process and is still used today as an additive in gasoline to increase the octane. Benzene is highly flammable. It's too expensive to produce as a pure fuel, but is used as an additive to increase the octane (burning efficiency) of gasoline. The benzol on board Mont-Blanc was intended for use by Allied military aircraft at war in France.

Guncotton is an explosive made by steeping cotton in nitric and sulfuric acid. It was invented by accident in 1845, when chemist Christian Schoenbein cleaned up a chemical spill with a cotton towel and set it by the fire to dry (BOOM!). Guncotton, or nitrocellulose (also known as trinitrocellulose and cellulose nitrate) is a mild explosive used in rockets, propellants, printing ink bases, leather finishing, and celluloid (a mixture of nitrocellulose and camphor; first used to manufacture billiard balls). Once all of the acids have been rinsed off, and the guncotton is allowed to dry completely, applying a small flame, heat, or a spark will set guncotton off, producing a flash of orange flame.
Since the guncotton flames up so quickly, I have found that the safest way to light it is with a butane lighter stick, which gives you some distance between the point of ignition and your hands. Another safe method of ignition is to heat up the end of a pair of tongs or a glass stirring rod in a Bunsen burner flame, and then touch the hot end to the guncotton. An ordinary kitchen match or a spark from a striker will also work, but I've found that I usually end up burning the hair off my fingers when I do it that way.
Picric acid (trinitrophenol) is an extremely dangerous chemical related to TNT. Transport Canada describes it as "explosive but also highly shock, heat and friction sensitive." It detonates faster, and more powerfully, than TNT. It is still used today in explosives, laboratories, and dye and fertilizer manufacturing (see Timothy McVeigh, Murrah Building, Oklahoma City, April 19, 1995).

So we've got the largest bomb ever assembled entering Halifax harbor on the morning of December 6, 1917 just as the Norwegian ship Imo was leaving the harbor. Imo had unloaded her cargo and was steaming empty towards New York to take on relief supplies for Belgium. In fact, she had huge banners hanging off her sides marked, "BELGIAN RELIEF" in an attempt to make her a less juicy target for German naval forces. Her commander, Captain Haakon From, had wanted to leave the previous day but delays in loading coal for her boilers had caused him to miss the raising of the harbor's anti-submarine netting and now he was in a hurry.

The Mont-Blanc, piloted by Mr. Mackey, entered the harbor through its entrance called The Narrows at about 4 knots, well under the speed limit of 5 knots. The Imo, on the other hand, had increased its speed to an estimated 7 knots, this estimate based upon testimony from surviving crew members. The Imo was sailing on the wrong side of the harbor, on her port side, as she had moved there to enable a previous passing vessel an easier route to its mooring site.

As the two ships approached, Mr. Mackey blew the Mont-Blanc's whistle once to signal his intention to maintain his correct course. Captain From responded with two blasts to indicate that he would not move and the Mont-Blanc must change course. The two ships exchanged whistle blasts several more times as they approached each other until it was too late. The Mont-Blanc swung frantically to port while the Imo reversed her engines. She could not swing to her port side because she was hard against the shore and would have immediately run aground. The Imo's bow crunched into the Mont-Blanc's starboard side and sparks flew. The Imo's bow missed the holds where the TNT was stored puncturing the holds holding the benzol fuel. This contributed to the horrific disaster that was to follow. Had the Imo struck the TNT holds directly, the explosion would have occurred immediately and many fewer lives would have been lost.

As it happened, however, the benzol ignited and a horrendous fire resulted. The crew of the Mont-Blanc immediately abandoned ship because they knew what was about to happen. Because they spoke French, no one could understand their warning shouts as they rowed furiously away from the stricken ship. The Mont-Blanc, no longer under power, drifted until she crashed into the Halifax docks, setting those ablaze. The Halifax fire department responded immediately with fire crews and the fire chief and assistant fire chief raced to the scene. The fires sent up huge plumes of smoke visible all around the harbor. Schoolchildren on their way to school along with thousands of onlookers headed for the scene to watch the firefighting efforts. Thousands more in their homes, offices and buildings all around the harbor gathered in front of their windows to watch. No one knew what the Mont-Blanc had on board except the escaping crew members who were unable to communicate the danger in time.

When the TNT and picric acid ignited, the explosion killed 1000 people outright. The seven story concrete and brick sugar refinery collapsed, killing all the workers inside. The explosion blew in the windows of thousands of homes, offices, schools and businesses, right into the faces and eyes of people watching the fire. Those who survived the initial explosion were then washed away by an ensuing tidal wave sent up by the force of the explosion. There was not enough glass available in all the maritime provinces to replace the windows blown out by the blast. It was months before enough glass could be manufactured and shipped to Halifax just to replace windows in those structures left standing.

Two children died in Richmond School, but 87 of their schoolmates died on their way there or at home. At Richmond Printing Company, more than thirty people died. At Hillis & Sons Foundry, 41 workers died. In Dartmouth, the Oland's brewery was left in ruins, with seven workers dead. Kaye Street Methodist Church lost 91 parishioners; Grove Presbyterian, 148; St. Mark's Anglican, about 200; and St. Joseph's, the heart of the Irish Catholic community, lost 404 members of its parish.

Twelve thousand buildings were severely damaged in the Explosion. 1630 were completely destroyed. Six thousand people were completely homeless, and the homes of many thousands more needed major repairs. A blizzard hit the next day and people had to nail up anything they could find to cover the blown out windows, including mattresses nailed up over the gaping holes to try to keep out the wind and snow.

In the ensuing relief effort, which did not officially end until 1976, the state of Massachusetts sent medical teams and tons of relief supplies to Halifax. In fact, one fond memory of many of the survivors is the "Massachusetts Store". Here people could go to recieve furniture and household items (free of charge) donated by the citzens of the state of Massachusetts. Many of these donated furniture pieces are now considered family heirlooms or sit in museums. The contribution of Massachusetts is estimated to have amounted to $750,000 USD in 1917 dollars, or more than $80,000,000 in today's money.

Forty-eight hours after the Explosion, the first medical teams and supplies arrived from the "Boston States," mainly Massachusetts. Governor Samuel W. McCall sent doctors, nurses, railroad and media people, Red Cross teams and medical supplies. The doctors and nurses relieved their exhausted local colleagues and organizers set up temporary hospitals and aid stations, in cooperation with the local authorities. Back in Boston, there were community relief drives collecting schoolchildren's pennies and high society's dollars. Music hall legend Sir Harry Lauder was among the donors at one luncheon raising over $2000. Opera fans contributed at another benefit featuring the Boston Symphony and the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba.

The Massachusetts Halifax Relief Committee, as it was called, operated in Halifax for almost two years. When the Governor of Massachusetts, Samuel McCall, visited Halifax in November 1918, he was welcomed as a hero. Dalhousie University conferred an honorary degree on him, and one of the temporary apartment complexes was named the Gov. McCall Apartments.

So, Nova Scotia has responded over the years by donating Boston's Christmas tree annualy. They just don't like it when their Christmas tree gets renamed the holiday tree. Neither do I.

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