The Explosion - A Child’s Story

By DARREN BRACKLEY*

SHUNPIKING MAGAZINE, VOL. 2 NO. 7, ISSUE #17

DECEMBER / JANUARY, 1998

Many who survived have now passed on. It is for those who are alive that the memories of that cold December morning still linger vividly.

Hazel (Robinson) Haydon, now 92 years old, is one who remembers the day the Halifax Explosion killed 1,600 and injured 9,000. This is her story.

Eighty years ago, the Robinson family lived on Union Street in Halifax’s working class north end. In the early morning of December 6, 1917, Mr. Robinson left for his job as a machinist at the CNR railyard, where his father and grandfather had worked before him. Next to leave the house was Hazel, 12, and her eight-year-old sister, Olive. They had recently been transferred from Richmond School to Bloomfield School by their mother.

It was a decision that would change the course of history for the Robinson family.

You see, on the way to Richmond School there was a small bridge over a stream. Instead of using the bridge, Hazel liked to tip-toe across the rocks, naturally getting her feet wet. After catching cold, something not taken lightly back in 1917, Hazel was warned by her mother that if she was caught playing in the stream again all the girls would be transferred to Bloomfield School. Hazel did get caught and her mother kept her promise.

The collision of the Imo and Mont Blanc created the world’s largest man-made explosion. The North End of Halifax was ripped apart at 9:05 am.

Richmond School was severely damaged but, since it was so early, most students were not there yet. Many Richmond students died while at home or on their way to school. Hazel’s 14-year-old uncle, Victor, also a student at Richmond, died when he joined the crowd of people gathering at the waterfront to watch the spectacular fire that preceded the blast.

Over at Bloomfield School, several blocks to the south and east, however, the aftermath of the effects of the explosion were less severe.

Windows were blown out and part of the upper floor collapsed. Hazel had been looking out the window daydreaming, but was unharmed by the flying glass. Olive was not so fortunate. She was struck by a beam that collapsed from the second floor. One of the teachers carried her over to Hazel and told her to get her home at once. Hazel picked up her sister and started for home, but buckled under her weight. Olive was bleeding and unconscious.

Knowing her sister needed help at once, Hazel pleaded with a passing man to carry her home. She assured him it was only a few blocks away, knowing that if she told him the truth her sister would die. The man picked Olive up and Hazel led him towards Union Street, always urging him on one more block. Along the way, they passed homes on fire and people in varying states of shock. In one burning house a woman screamed for help as she was pinned inside. Passers-by only watched as she was engulfed in flames. The man placed Olive on a mattress on Needham Street, only one street up from Union. As Hazel made her way down to Union she saw the remains of houses, including her own, ripped apart and on fire. Now Hazel was overcome; when she could not find her mother, she broke down and cried.

At the time of the explosion, Mrs. Robinson was at home with her three other children. Ruth, 10, was home recuperating from an ear operation. Muriel, 6, was home sick. Edna, 3, was the youngest of the five. Mrs. Robinson's leg was pinned under the large coal stove the family used to heat the house. Ruth, Muriel and Edna had no serious injuries.

What happened next became a front page story in a Boston newspaper.

Ruth and Muriel lifted the coal filled stove high enough off the floor for their mother to slide her crushed leg away.

Unbeknownst to Hazel, her father had made his way home from the railyard and found his injured wife. He took her and the children to the hospital and was on his way back to find Hazel and Olive. At first, Hazel did not recognize the large, soot-covered man calling out her name. She brought him to Olive and they all hurried to the hospital. There the family was reunited.

Now homeless, they stayed in the nurses’ quarters for several days. The next day, Olive died.

Mrs. Robinson’s leg needed immediate attention, and it was decided to send her to a hospital in New Glasgow where she could get the proper treatment. Meanwhile Hazel and her three sisters stayed at St. Mary’s church hall, a temporary home for the homeless. Hazel watched out for her sisters during the months that followed. Mr. Robinson was back working at the railyard. The long hours at work and the distance to the church hall meant he could only see his children on the weekends. Mrs. Robinson returned to Halifax in the spring of 1918. Her leg healed and she was able to walk. The family moved to a house on Robie Steet until fall, when a new home was built on their property on Union Street. Hazel now lives in Elmsdale.

She hasn’t forgotten that day in 1917.

*Hazel (Robinson) Haydon is Darren Brackley’s grandmother-in-law. Her family’s story is recorded here for the first time.