The chronicling of an early 20th-century disaster

It was the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. It killed 1,900 people, injured more than 9,000, and laid waste more than 1,600 homes and 300 acres of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Dec. 6, 1917. (It was also indirectly responsible for the recently controversial Christmas/Holiday tree that lights up the Boston Common every year.) In 2003, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation created a website dedicated to the disaster in order to support a series of related television specials, and while the broadcasts have come and gone, The Halifax Explosion still provides online access to many of the stories behind this largely forgotten piece of history.

While not specifically a Web companion for any or all of the television broadcasts (two fictional and one documentary), the CBC's Halifax Explosion site offered information relevant to all three productions - and now serves as the most accessible Web resource about the event. And while there seem to be some occasional idiosyncracies with layout (such as an introductory paragraph that extends below its frame on the site's home page) and content (a map of the destruction that opened only as a tiny thumbnail in both of my browsers), the site is media-rich, and full of sidebars and anecdotes that serve to make it much more than a dry archival document.

After the aforementioned introduction, "Halifax Explosion" approaches its subject in a prologue-story-epilogue fashion. Opening with City of Promise, a profile of Halifax in 1917, the site describes a navy town built on one of the world's largest natural harbors, seeing extra wartime service as a convoy gathering point, and dealing with a major increase in ship traffic. Multimedia extras introduce visitors to the environs above and below sea level with a 1909 cityscape taken from across the Halifax Harbour, and animated surveys of the harbour's 'topography.'

Next, City of Ruins recounts the fatal collision on the morning of Dec. 6 between the relief ship, Imo, and the munitions-laden Mont Blanc - the latter carrying over 2,500 tons of benzol fuel, TNT, picric acid, and gun cotton. (The explosion threw one of the ship's gun barrels more than three miles inland, lifted a Navy tug entirely out of the water and onto a nearby pier, and drove a 60-foot wall of water over the Halifax shoreline.) Here, extras include profiles of the ships involved and a "historical docu-comic" paying tribute to the city's firefighters. But the most compelling exhibit is a user-controllable "Explosion Timeline" - which illustrates the ships' movements, before and after the collision, from four different vantage points.

City in Shock deals with the immediate consequences of and reaction to the explosion (some thought the city was under German attack), while Aftermath and Recovery recounts relief efforts over the following days and weeks, as well as the inquiry into the causes of the tragedy. Finally, Connections looks at the long-term fallout of the Halifax Explosion, from modern disaster planning to the impact on the cultural community. A For Teachers section offers activities and materials for grades 6-12, along with a collection of related links.

In addition to the animations and interactives, each section also links to Photographic Galleries (with some post-explosion images showing an astonishing level of destruction) and RealPlayer archives of local news broadcasts related to the event (dating back to 1967). Sidebar articles take visitors to personal profiles, firsthand accounts, silent film footage shot days after the explosion, and bits of trivia. (The cross-harbor Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry service continued running without interruption throughout the aftermath of the explosion.) Links within the narrative's text take surfers to such related offsite resources as Halifax's Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and the Nova Scotia Archives.

But even taking all the extras and multimedia into account, the most compelling feature of the site is still the story itself - including the staggering chain of blind bad luck which led to the disaster. Neither ship had planned to be in the Harbour Narrows that morning. Both stumbled into the collision like two people trying to pass in a narrow hallway. The English-speaking harbor workers didn't understand the French-language warnings of the Mont Blanc's crew after the shipboard fires had started. The collision and fires actually drew spectators to the harbor shores and the windows of their homes during the 20 minutes before the final explosion. And, after almost every window in the city was shattered by the blast, Dec. 6 ended with a blizzard that continued through the next day.

There are also episodes of heroism, miraculous survival, and international support. Aid flowed to the city from around the world - including donations from as far away as New Zealand and China. And that Christmas tree in Boston? An annual show of thanks from the Province of Nova Scotia for the medical personnel, volunteers, glaziers, and some $750,000 in relief contributions sent by the people and government of Massachusetts. A reminder (as we have learned again in more recent years) that the worst of times can bring out the best in people.

CBC's The Halifax Explosion can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/halifaxexplosion/.

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