On that cold winter’s morn in nineteen hundred and seventeen, no red flag waved above the stacks of the Mont Blanc. There was nothing to warn the innocent in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that she was a floating bomb filled to the gunnels with, among other nasties, some 400,000 pounds of TNT.
The absence of the flag was a safety precaution. The German u-boats prowling the Atlantic would have no way of identifying her as a carrier of such deadly, or such an important cargo. Perhaps in their search for more impressive prey, they would leave this little rust-bucket alone as she sailed with her convoy to battle-weary Europe.
Except for one stretch of water, called “The Narrows” which connected the outer harbour and the Atlantic with the Bedford Basin, Halifax Harbour was ideal as a launch point for the dozens of ships that came and went from the war zone. Troop ships, cargo vessels and munitions carriers like the Monte Blanc were a common sight.
Vincent Coleman, like thousands of other Haligonians, went off to work that morning in December with absolutely no inkling of what was soon to happen. He settled down to his work as dispatcher at the Richmond Railway Yards not far from the harbour. Soldiers, sailors and the materiel of war, as well as trains carrying ordinary passengers, poured into Halifax from all over Canada and the United States. The responsibility rested heavily on his shoulders.
“Hey,Vince, how’s the wife and kids?”
Intercolonial Railway’s chief office clerk, William Lovet stepped into the office just minutes behind Coleman.
“Little one’s got the sniffles; you know what it’s like in winter. As for the rest, everybody’s fine. You?”
“Lookin’ forward to Christmas.” Bill hung up his coat and set to work.
It was 7:30 a.m. At the entrance to the narrows, the anti-submarine nets had been lowered and the Mont Blanc’s captain, Aimé Le Médec, began his slow passage into Bedford Basin.
But in the habour, a Norwegian freighter, the Imo, was as anxious to get out of Halifax as Mont Blanc was to get in. She was riding high, in passage to New York to pick up relief supplies. She stayed to port extending the common, though illegal, courtesy to incoming vessels of using the starboard channel that was closer to the docks.
The two vessels exchanged signals and whistles to indicate their intentions, but confusion won the day and just before 9:00 a.m., Imo sliced into the Monte Blanc. The Imo reversed engines, and as she pulled away, fire broke out on the Mont Blanc.
Captain Le Médec, knowing what his ship carried, immediately ordered his crew to abandon ship. They screamed out warnings to anyone who might hear. Few understood since they were shouting in French.
The Mont Blanc drifted toward the harbour, coming to rest against one of the docks. She was burning profusely now and the spectacle attracted a huge crowd of excited school children, workers, and passers-by, along with local firefighters.
A stone white face, mouth gaping and eyes wide, appeared in the doorway of Vince Coleman’s office at the Richmond Yards.
“Run, run for your lives! She’s gonna blow!” The sailor’s garbled tale was clear enough to convince William and Vince that they needed to get as far away as possible, as quickly as possible. They were out the door when Coleman slid to a stop and turned back.
“Vince, what are you doing? We have to go. Now.”
“I can’t. There are passenger trains due any moment. I have to stop them.”
“Don’t be crazy, man. You have a wife and kids. If you stay …”
“You go. I’ll be right behind you.”
At 9:04:35 a.m., Mont Blanc disintegrated in a flash of light, sending up a pillar of smoke the likes of which would not be seen until the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima almost thirty years later. The better part of northern Halifax was leveled; almost two thousand people lost their lives.
Among the lost was Vincent Coleman.
Out of the reach of the shrapnel, glass and flying debris, trains idled. Vince had completed his mission by tapping out the crucial message: “Munitions ship on fire. Approaching Pier 6. Goodbye boys.” He had been just in time to save hundreds of lives, at the cost of his own.
When one man dies to save the living, we call him a hero. And rightly so. When one man dies to save the dead, we call Him a Saviour.
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