Article
Gary Hanna
The Shattered Sky

This gripping work of nonfiction describes the biggest non-nuclear explosion in history: The 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor.

By Kristin Lewis
From the November 2017 Issue

Learning Objective: to analyze how an author brings a story to life

Lexiles: 890L, 820L
Other Key Skills: mood, supporting details, key ideas and details, close reading, critical thinking, author’s craft
Topic: History,

Bookmark & Share

Presentation View

Read the Article
Download and Print
AS YOU READ

As you read the article and study the images, look for details that bring the story to life.

When 13-year-old Noble Driscoll woke up, he found himself in a pile of rubble near what used to be his school.

He did not know what had happened, but his mind was filled with terrifying images of smoke and fire.

He stood up and looked around at the charred brick and ash.

Where were his friends? Where was his family? Noble wondered if he was the last person alive.

December 6, 1917, dawned cold and clear in Halifax and Dartmouth, two seaside towns in Nova Scotia, Canada, separated by a narrow harbor. That morning, a fine, low mist hung over the water.

By 8 a.m., the two towns were buzzing with activity. Soft smoke curled from chimneys as mothers served up steaming bowls of oatmeal. Children gathered their schoolbooks, and fathers pulled on their coats and headed off to work.

In the northern Halifax neighborhood of Richmond, where Noble lived, horse-drawn wagons clattered down the streets. Factories churned out flour, beer, metalworks, and other goods. A tram rumbled along the waterfront, where sturdy-looking men carried cargo onto giant ships docked in the harbor. From his backyard, Noble had an amazing view of the Narrows, the aptly named narrowest section of Halifax Harbor.

Noble was fascinated by the vessels that passed in and out of the harbor. Most belonged to the military—minesweepers, submarines, and convoys that carried troops, weapons, and supplies to the war in Europe.

World War I had been raging since 1914. Many countries were involved. On one side, the major players included Great Britain, Canada (then a colony of Great Britain), France, Russia, and the United States. On the other side were Germany, Austria-Hungary (one country at the time), and the Ottoman Empire (which included modern-day Turkey).

Across Europe, gruesome battles were being fought, but this violence was thousands of miles from Halifax and Dartmouth. Noble must have felt safe in his tight-knit harborside neighborhood. In a few minutes, this would change.

A terrible accident was about to happen. Two ships—the Mont-Blanc and the Imo—were on a deadly collision course. Soon, Noble’s neighborhood would be obliterated and thousands would be dead.

Thirteen-year-old Noble Driscoll lay in a pile of rubble near what used to be his school. He did not know what had happened, but his mind was filled with scary images of smoke and fire.  

He stood up and looked around at the charred brick and ash.

Where were his friends? Where was his family? Noble wondered if he was the last person alive.

December 6, 1917, had dawned cold and clear in Halifax and Dartmouth. These two seaside towns in Nova Scotia, Canada, were separated by a narrow harbor.

By 8 a.m., the two towns were busy. Mothers served up steaming bowls of porridge. Children gathered their schoolbooks. Fathers headed off to work. In the northern Halifax neighborhood of Richmond, where Noble lived, horse-drawn wagons clattered down the streets. Factories made flour, beer, metalworks, and other goods. A tram rumbled along the waterfront, where men carried cargo onto ships docked in the harbor.

From his backyard, Noble had a great view of the Narrows, the aptly named narrowest section of Halifax Harbor. Noble, a curious kid with dark hair and a wide smile, was fascinated by the vessels that passed in and out of the harbor. Most belonged to the military—minesweepers, submarines, huge convoys that carried troops, weapons, and supplies to Europe.

Since 1914, World War I had been raging in Europe. Many countries were involved. On one side, the major players included Great Britain, Canada (then a colony of Great Britain), France, Russia, and the United States. On the other side were Germany, Austria-Hungary (one country at the time), and the Ottoman Empire (including modern-day Turkey).

Gruesome battles were happening in Europe, but this violence was thousands of miles from Halifax and Dartmouth. Noble must have felt safe in his neighborhood.

But in a few minutes, this would change.

A terrible accident was about to happen. Two ships—the Mont-Blanc and the Imo—would soon collide. Noble’s neighborhood would be destroyed, and thousands of people would be dead.

Steve Stankiewicz

Bad News

Though Noble was far from the fighting, World War I had cast a shadow over Dartmouth and Halifax. It seemed that nearly every day, newspapers brought more bad news from the front lines. Noble had gotten used to seeing soldiers in uniform around town. Some had come back from the war with grave injuries. Others were preparing to go overseas to fight. At Richmond School, where Noble was in seventh grade, the war was a frequent topic of conversation.

Halifax had strategic value for the transportation of supplies and troops and had become an important hub. Halifax was the major North American port closest to Europe, and the shape of the harbor made it easy to protect from attacks. This was important because fearsome German submarines called U-boats prowled beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean beyond the harbor. By 1917, these U-boats had sunk some 3,000 vessels.

Traffic in Halifax Harbor had increased eightfold since the war started. A steady stream of ships passed through daily. The harbor had become as busy as a major highway at rush hour.

Though Noble was far from the fighting, World War I had cast a shadow over Dartmouth and Halifax. Newspapers brought more and more bad news from the front lines. Noble often saw soldiers in uniform around town. Some had come back from the war badly injured. Others were preparing to go overseas to fight. At Richmond School, where Noble was in seventh grade, the war was a frequent topic of conversation.

During the war, Halifax became an important hub in the transportation of supplies and troops. Halifax was the closest major North American port to Europe, and the shape of the harbor made it easy to protect it from outside attacks. This was important because German submarines called U-boats prowled beneath the waves of the Atlantic Ocean outside the harbor. By 1917, these U-boats had sunk some 3,000 vessels.

Many ships were passing through the harbor each day. Traffic had increased eightfold since the war started. The harbor had become as busy as a major highway at rush hour.

Nova Scotia Archives & Records Management

Along the Waterfront

Halifax before the explosion. Many houses were made of wood, which caught fire after the explosion toppled kitchen stoves.

Powerful Explosives

On December 6, the Mont-Blanc was due to join a convoy of ships headed to Europe. There was something about the Mont-Blanc that only a handful of people beyond the crew knew: It was loaded with dangerous munitions. Powerful explosives—in fact, some of the most powerful that existed at the time—were packed into the cargo holds below deck. Above deck were barrels filled with benzol, a flammable liquid similar to gasoline. In total, the ship carried nearly 3,000 tons of explosive materials.

Around 8:30 a.m., the Mont-Blanc entered Halifax Harbor, heading north. At the same time, a relief ship called the Imo was leaving the harbor, heading south.

The Imo veered out of its lane to avoid another ship that had somehow moved into its path. The pilot of the Imo didn’t know he had just steered directly into the path of the Mont-Blanc.
A catastrophe was taking shape.

On December 6, the Mont-Blanc was due to join a convoy of ships headed to Europe. Few people beyond the crew knew that the Mont-Blanc was packed with dangerous munitions. Powerful explosives—the most powerful that existed at the time—were packed into the cargo holds below deck. Above deck were barrels filled with benzol, a flammable liquid similar to gasoline. In total, the ship carried nearly 3,000 tons of explosive materials. The Mont-Blanc was a floating bomb.

Around 8:30 a.m., the Mont-Blanc entered Halifax Harbor, sailing north. At the same time, the Imo, a relief ship, was leaving the harbor, sailing south.

The Imo moved out of its lane to avoid another ship that had steered into its path. The pilot of the Imo didn’t know he had just steered straight into the path of the Mont-Blanc.

A catastrophe was taking shape

Too Late

Digitally restored by Joel Zemel—Original Image Courtesy of Janet Maybee and the Mackey Family

As the two ships came into each other’s view, they blared their whistles. But the signals must have been misunderstood, because neither ship changed course.

Then, Mont-Blanc pilot Francis Mackey turned left. The Imo reversed its engines.

But it was too late.

The Imo tore into the Mont-Blanc.

Water gushed through a 20-foot gash in the Mont-Blanc’s hull. The barrels of benzol toppled and splashed open.

As the Imo reversed, the metal on the two hulking ships scraped together.

Sparks flew.

And then . . .

WHOOSH!

The benzol ignited. Flames raced across the deck of the Mont-Blanc. A plume of thick, black smoke rose into the sky. Water poured into the ship, hissing as it vaporized into steam. Mackey and the Mont-Blanc captain, Aimé Le Medec, knew there was nothing they could do. It was only a matter of time before the explosives below deck detonated. The choice was stark: Stay on the boat and die, or abandon ship.

Mackey, Le Medec, and the Mont-Blanc crew piled into lifeboats and rowed furiously toward Dartmouth. Mackey waved and shouted, trying to alert the other ships in the harbor to the danger. But his efforts were futile. No one seemed to notice.

As the two ships came into each other’s view, they blared their whistles. But the signals must have been misunderstood, because neither ship changed course.

Then, Mont-Blanc pilot Francis Mackey turned left and the Imo reversed its engines.

But it was too late.

The Imo tore into the Mont-Blanc.

Water gushed through a 20-foot gash in the Mont-Blanc’s hull. The barrels of benzol toppled and splashed open.

As the Imo reversed, the metal on the two ships scraped together.

Sparks flew.

And then . . .  

WHOOSH!

The benzol caught fire.

Flames raced across the deck of the Mont-Blanc. Black smoke rose into the sky. Water poured into the ship, hissing as it turned to steam. Mackey and the Mont-Blanc crew knew there was nothing they could do. It was only a matter of time before the explosives below deck blew up. The choice was stark: Stay on the boat and die, or abandon ship.

They piled into lifeboats and rowed toward Dartmouth. Mackey waved and shouted, trying to alert the other ships in the harbor to the danger. But no one seemed to notice.

Maritime Museum of the Atlantic

Wartime Ships

Like many ships used in World War I, the Mont-Blanc was not originally built for war.

Flicking Skyward

Back in Richmond, Noble saw orange-and-blue flames flicking skyward from the Mont-Blanc. He left his house and walked toward the harbor to get a better view. Like Noble, many in Dartmouth and Halifax rushed outside to see the burning ship. Others watched from the windows of homes, shops, and factories. Several boats raced toward the Mont-Blanc, hoping to help. Their crews had no idea that their lives were in danger.

The Mont-Blanc, having been knocked off course during the collision, was now floating straight toward Noble and his Richmond neighborhood.

Around 9 a.m., the ship drifted into Pier 6 on the Richmond waterfront.

And then, the Mont-Blanc exploded.

Back in Richmond, Noble saw the orange and blue flames flicking skyward from the Mont-Blanc. He left his house and walked toward the harbor for a better view.

Like Noble, many in Dartmouth and Halifax rushed outside to see the burning ship. Others watched from the windows of homes, shops, and factories. Several boats raced toward the Mont-Blanc. Their crew wanted to help. They had no idea that their lives were in danger.

The Mont-Blanc had been knocked off course during the collision. Now it was floating toward Noble’s Richmond neighborhood.

Around 9 a.m., the ship drifted into Pier 6 on the Richmond waterfront. And then, the Mont-Blanc exploded.

Shock Wave

In a fraction of a second, the Mont-Blanc was ripped to pieces. At its center, the explosion likely reached 9,000 degrees—more than four times hotter than lava. A tremendous blast of energy shot outward at a speed of 5,000 feet per second—which is to say, it traveled the length of 14 football fields in the time it takes to blink your eyes.

This shock wave ripped through Dartmouth and Halifax. Ships were overturned and smashed. Train cars careened off rails. Factories collapsed into heaps of rubble. Doors flew off hinges, trees snapped in two, windows shattered, and shards of glass shot through the air like missiles.

People felt the ground shake 250 miles away. Many in Halifax and Dartmouth wondered if they were under attack.

The shock wave lifted Noble into the air. He landed, unconscious, near Richmond School. For about 10 minutes, black rain fell—a sludge of benzol residue, molten pieces of the Mont-Blanc, and other debris.

When Noble came to, he saw that most of the buildings were gone. Fires burned everywhere. His jacket had been blown off. His skin was blackened by the rain. Shards of glass stuck in his hair.

Yet there was more horror to come. The explosion triggered an enormous wave that surged out of the harbor and crashed through Dartmouth and Halifax, toppling more buildings and sweeping people away. This tsunami pushed the Imo aground in Dartmouth.

Fortunately for Noble, the wave did not reach him. In a daze, he wandered through the ruined streets toward his house, where only moments before his family had been going about their morning routine.

Like his school, his house had been reduced to a few wobbly walls. But Noble saw his family huddled around the stove, which miraculously was still standing. One of his father’s eyes was filled with glass. And one of Noble’s 13 siblings—his little brother Gordon—was missing.

The Mont-Blanc was ripped to pieces. At its center, the explosion likely reached 9,000 degrees—more than four times hotter than lava. A massive blast of energy shot outward at a speed of 5,000 feet per second—which is to say, traveling the length of 14 football fields in the time it takes to blink your eyes.

In seconds, this shock wave ripped through Dartmouth and Halifax. Ships were overturned and smashed. Train cars went off the rails. Factories collapsed into heaps of rubble. Doors flew off hinges, trees snapped in two, and windows shattered. Shards of glass shot through the air like missiles.

People felt the ground shake 250 miles away. Many in Halifax and Dartmouth wondered if they were under attack.

The shock wave lifted Noble into the air. He landed, unconscious, near Richmond School. For about 10 minutes, black rain fell—a choking sludge of benzol residue, molten pieces of the Mont-Blanc, and other debris.

When Noble came to, he saw that most of the buildings were gone. Fires burned everywhere. Noble’s jacket had been blown off. Shards of glass stuck in his hair. His skin was blackened by the rain.

Yet there was more horror to come.

The explosion triggered a huge wave that surged out of the harbor and crashed through Dartmouth and Halifax. This tsunami toppled more buildings and swept people away. It pushed the Imo aground in Dartmouth. In the end, seven people on board the Imo were killed.

Luckily for Noble, the wave did not reach him. In a daze, he wandered through the ruined streets toward his house.

Like his school, his house had been reduced to a few wobbly walls. But Noble saw his family huddled around the stove, which miraculously was still standing. One of his father’s eyes was filled with glass. And one of Noble’s 13 siblings—his little brother Gordon—was missing.

Library and Archives Canada/C-019945

A view after the explosion.

Rush to Help

The explosion of the Mont-Blanc was one of the most powerful explosions in history. Only a few bombs have had more power.

Yet in the midst of unspeakable horror, people rushed to help. Neighbors pulled each other from the burning wreckage of their homes. Soldiers carried wounded men, women, and children to safety. Buildings that still stood were quickly converted to hospitals.

Communities across Nova Scotia mobilized. By the afternoon, trains loaded with nurses, doctors, firefighters, and supplies were streaming into Halifax. Noble and his family boarded a train carrying survivors away from the city. Doctors went from passenger to passenger, binding wounds and treating other injuries.

Unfortunately, a blizzard hit the next day, hampering relief efforts. Nevertheless, aid was soon pouring in again.

The explosion of the Mont-Blanc was one of the most powerful explosions in history. Only nuclear bombs have had more power.

Yet in the midst of the horror, people rushed to help each other. Neighbors pulled each other from the burning wreckage of their homes. Soldiers carried wounded men, women, and children to safety. Buildings that still stood were used as hospitals.

Communities across Nova Scotia mobilized. By the afternoon, trains loaded with nurses, doctors, firefighters, and supplies were streaming into Halifax. Another train carried away survivors, including Noble and his family. Doctors went from passenger to passenger, treating injuries.

Unfortunately, a blizzard hit the next day, hampering relief efforts. But in the following days and weeks, aid poured in from across Canada and the United States. Thousands of people had lost homes, possessions, and jobs. Many had permanent injuries. More than 2,000 people had died.

People were angry. They wanted answers. Some blamed Germany. Others blamed the government. Some blamed Mackey and the Mont-Blanc captain. The two men were vilified in the newspapers, put on trial, and briefly sent to jail.

They were later released and charges were dropped. It seemed they had been scapegoated.

Mackey eventually returned to the sea, but his name was tarnished. (Recently, writer and retired teacher Janet Maybee worked to clear Mackey’s name and interviewed many of his surviving relatives. You can read the story in her book Aftershock.)

Looking for Answers

Thousands of people had lost homes, possessions, jobs. Some 2,000 people had died, and at least 9,000 had been injured. Five crew members from the Imo died—as well as the pilot and captain—as did one crew member from the Mont-Blanc.

People were angry and wanted answers. Some blamed Germany. Some blamed the government for not managing the harbor better. Some blamed the Imo. Many blamed Mackey and Le Medec. The men were vilified in the newspapers, charged with criminal offenses, and briefly sent to jail. The charges were later dropped.

Historians now say the men were treated unfairly. They had been scapegoated. Mackey eventually returned to the sea, but his name had been tarnished. (Writer and retired teacher Janet Maybee has been working to clear Mackey’s name. You can read the story in her book Aftershock.)

Bettmann/Getty Images

Relief Efforts

Relief poured into Halifax and Dartmouth. In the days after the explosion, many people stayed in their damaged homes, covering broken windows with tar paper to keep out the cold as best they could. Some took shelter in nearby Truro, where the community opened their homes to survivors. Others lived in makeshift tents while temporary housing was being built.

100 Years Later

Today—100 years later—Halifax is thriving. Walk through the streets along the harbor, and you will enjoy the scent of delicious seafood wafting from waterfront restaurants. You will hear the horns of ferries and see trains bringing cargo to the enormous ships docked in the harbor.

Yet memories of the catastrophe still seem to ripple through the air. Mention the explosion to nearly anyone, and he or she can probably tell you about a relative who lived through it.

As for Noble? Tragically, his little brother Gordon was never found. The Driscolls pushed on as best they could though. They lived for a while in a nearby town, and they welcomed a new baby in 1919. That same year they returned to Halifax. By then, World War I had ended and the Driscolls, like people all around the world, were ready to rebuild their lives.

Noble went on to get married and manage a store. He lived in a house in the neighborhood that was built on the ruins of Richmond.

In that neighborhood today, at the top of a hill overlooking the harbor, stands a bell tower. Each December 6, its bells ring in solemn memory of the day the sky shattered.

Today—100 years later—Halifax is thriving. Walk through the streets along the harbor, and you’ll enjoy the smell of seafood wafting from waterfront restaurants. You’ll hear the horns of ferries. You’ll see trains bringing cargo to the ships docked in the harbor.

Yet memories of the catastrophe still seem to ripple through the air. Mention the explosion to anyone, and he or she can probably tell you about a relative who lived through it.

As for Noble? Tragically, his brother Gordon was never found. The Driscolls went on as best they could. They lived for a while in the nearby city of Truro, and they welcomed a new baby in 1919. That same year they returned to Halifax. By then, World War I had ended. The Driscolls, like people all around the world, were ready to rebuild their lives.

Noble went on to get married and manage a store. He lived in a house in the neighborhood that was built atop the ruins of Richmond.

Today, in that same neighborhood at the top of a hill overlooking the harbor, stands a bell tower. Each December 6, its bells ring in solemn memory of the day the sky was shattered.

Special thanks to Roger Marsters from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Liam Caswell from the Dartmouth Heritage Museum, Barry Smith from the Nova Scotia Archives, Janet Kitz, Janet Maybee, and Nimbus Publishing for their generous research assistance.

Special thanks to Roger Marsters from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Liam Caswell from the Dartmouth Heritage Museum, Barry Smith from the Nova Scotia Archives, Janet Kitz, Janet Maybee, and Nimbus Publishing for their generous research assistance.

video (1)
Audio ()
Activities (11) Download All Quizzes and Activities
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
video (1)
Audio ()
Activities (11) Download All Quizzes and Activities
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Dig Deeper With These Texts
Guiding Question

How did the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor affect the city of Halifax?

Timeline of the collision

This interactive timeline created by historian and writer Janet Maybee illustrates the collision between the Mont-Blanc and the Imo step-by-step. The timeline includes maps, photos, and audio clips of a radio interview with pilot Francis Mackey after the explosion.

Poem: “Requiem...for a December Morn Long Ago”

This poem by Owen McCarron tells the story of those who experienced the explosion in Halifax.

Article: “Vincent Coleman and the Halifax Explosion”

Read this article about railway dispatcher Vincent Coleman, who heroically sent out a telegraph to train conductors in Halifax warning them of the explosion.

Video: “New time capsule in the works for Halifax Explosion anniversary”

As a class, watch this video about a time capsule that is being prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the explosion in Halifax. The time capsule will be buried under the Memorial Bell Tower in Halifax.

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

Essential questions: How do we make sense of a tragedy? Why should past disasters be remembered? How do large-scale disasters alter the regions where they happen?

Essential questions: How do we make sense of a tragedy? Why should past disasters be remembered? How do large-scale disasters alter the regions where they happen?


1. PREPARING TO READ

Watch the video. (15 minutes)

Project or distribute the Video Discussion Questions. Show our Behind the Scenes video. Then, as a class, answer the first set of discussion questions. (The second set is for after reading.)

Preview vocabulary. (8 minutes)

Project or distribute the Vocabulary Words and Definitions. Review the words as a class. Highlighted words: aptly, hampering, munitions, port, scapegoated, stark, tarnished, vilified

Watch the video. (15 minutes)

Project or distribute the Video Discussion Questions. Show our Behind the Scenes video. Then, as a class, answer the first set of discussion questions. (The second set is for after reading.)

Preview vocabulary. (8 minutes)

Project or distribute the Vocabulary Words and Definitions. Review the words as a class. Highlighted words: aptly, hampering, munitions, port, scapegoated, stark, tarnished, vilified

2. READING AND DISCUSSING

Explore the text features. (3 minutes)

As a class, study the photos and the map, which help students understand the complicated events and geography of the story. Have students share what they find interesting or surprising.

Read and discuss the article. (45 minutes)

  • Have a volunteer read aloud the As You Read box on page 5. Read the article as a class. 
  • Have students work in groups to discuss the following close-reading questions.

Close-Reading Questions

  • Why are the details about World War I in the section “Bad News” important to the story? (text structure) The details about the war are important to the story because they explain that, though Dartmouth and Halifax were far from Europe, there were many soldiers in the area. Halifax had become a major transportation hub for the war effort. This puts the events of the article in historical context. 
  • In the section “Powerful Explosives,” how does author Kristin Lewis create suspense? (mood) Lewis creates suspense by describing the munitions loaded onto the Mont-Blanc and then stating that the ship was about to crash into another ship. She writes that the Mont- Blanc was carrying nearly 3,000 tons of explosive materials. Then she explains that another ship, the Imo, “steered directly into the path of the Mont-Blanc.”
  • In the section “Shock Wave,” which details help you understand how powerful the explosion was? (supporting details) Details include that the ship was ripped into pieces, that the center of the explosion was more than four times hotter than lava, that the shock wave traveled at 5,000 feet per second, and that the explosion created a tsunami.
  • Reread the description of Halifax in the introduction. Then reread the description of Halifax after the explosion in the section “Shock Wave.” What do these two descriptions help you understand? (key ideas and details) The two descriptions help you understand how extensive the damage was. In the introduction, Lewis writes that Halifax and Dartmouth “were buzzing with activity.” She describes families getting ready for the day, horse-drawn carriages clattering down the streets, factories churning out goods, and trams rumbling by the water. In the section “Shock Wave,” Lewis explains that the explosion destroyed all of this. She writes that “train cars careened off rails,” “factories collapsed,” and “most of the buildings were gone.”

Bring the class back together to respond to the second set of Video Discussion Questions

Break students into three small groups. Assign each group one of the following critical-thinking questions to answer and present to the class.

Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back—to recover from misfortune. In “The Shattered Sky,” who does Lewis portray as showing resilience? Explain. Lewis portrays the Driscoll family as showing resilience; she explains that after losing one of their children, the destruction of their home, and having to move out of Halifax, the family had another baby and returned home in 1919. Lewis also portrays the general public as showing resilience after World War I when she writes, “ . . . the Driscolls, like people all around the world, were ready to rebuild their lives” (10). Lewis portrays Halifax as resilient as well, when she writes that the city is now “thriving” (10).
  • On page 10, Lewis states that some blamed Mackey and Le Medec for the explosion but that the criminal charges against them “were later dropped.” Why might some people have been quick to blame them for the disaster? As Lewis writes, many people were angry and wanted answers. When something terrible happens, people tend to want someone to blame. Perhaps it’s more comforting to believe that one or two people are responsible for a disaster than to accept that a combination of many small decisions and simple bad luck could lead to something as tragic as the Halifax explosion.
  • What can be gained by learning about the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor? Learning about the explosion can remind us how easily accidents can happen—which will drive us to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the Halifax explosion from occurring again. Learning about the explosion can also strengthen our faith in human goodness when we discover the way residents of Halifax, Dartmouth, and nearby communities stepped up to help those affected by the explosion. And finally, learning that Halifax is doing well today can give us hope for the recovery of communities affected by other disasters.

Explore the text features. (3 minutes)

As a class, study the photos and the map, which help students understand the complicated events and geography of the story. Have students share what they find interesting or surprising.

Read and discuss the article. (45 minutes)

  • Have a volunteer read aloud the As You Read box on page 5. Read the article as a class. 
  • Have students work in groups to discuss the following close-reading questions.

Close-Reading Questions

  • Why are the details about World War I in the section “Bad News” important to the story? (text structure) The details about the war are important to the story because they explain that, though Dartmouth and Halifax were far from Europe, there were many soldiers in the area. Halifax had become a major transportation hub for the war effort. This puts the events of the article in historical context. 
  • In the section “Powerful Explosives,” how does author Kristin Lewis create suspense? (mood) Lewis creates suspense by describing the munitions loaded onto the Mont-Blanc and then stating that the ship was about to crash into another ship. She writes that the Mont- Blanc was carrying nearly 3,000 tons of explosive materials. Then she explains that another ship, the Imo, “steered directly into the path of the Mont-Blanc.”
  • In the section “Shock Wave,” which details help you understand how powerful the explosion was? (supporting details) Details include that the ship was ripped into pieces, that the center of the explosion was more than four times hotter than lava, that the shock wave traveled at 5,000 feet per second, and that the explosion created a tsunami.
  • Reread the description of Halifax in the introduction. Then reread the description of Halifax after the explosion in the section “Shock Wave.” What do these two descriptions help you understand? (key ideas and details) The two descriptions help you understand how extensive the damage was. In the introduction, Lewis writes that Halifax and Dartmouth “were buzzing with activity.” She describes families getting ready for the day, horse-drawn carriages clattering down the streets, factories churning out goods, and trams rumbling by the water. In the section “Shock Wave,” Lewis explains that the explosion destroyed all of this. She writes that “train cars careened off rails,” “factories collapsed,” and “most of the buildings were gone.”

Bring the class back together to respond to the second set of Video Discussion Questions

Break students into three small groups. Assign each group one of the following critical-thinking questions to answer and present to the class.

Critical-Thinking Questions (5 minutes)

  • Resilience is the ability to bounce back—to recover from misfortune. In “The Shattered Sky,” who does Lewis portray as showing resilience? Explain. Lewis portrays the Driscoll family as showing resilience; she explains that after losing one of their children, the destruction of their home, and having to move out of Halifax, the family had another baby and returned home in 1919. Lewis also portrays the general public as showing resilience after World War I when she writes, “ . . . the Driscolls, like people all around the world, were ready to rebuild their lives” (10). Lewis portrays Halifax as resilient as well, when she writes that the city is now “thriving” (10).
  • On page 10, Lewis states that some blamed Mackey and Le Medec for the explosion but that the criminal charges against them “were later dropped.” Why might some people have been quick to blame them for the disaster? As Lewis writes, many people were angry and wanted answers. When something terrible happens, people tend to want someone to blame. Perhaps it’s more comforting to believe that one or two people are responsible for a disaster than to accept that a combination of many small decisions and simple bad luck could lead to something as tragic as the Halifax explosion.
  • What can be gained by learning about the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor? Learning about the explosion can remind us how easily accidents can happen—which will drive us to take precautions to prevent tragedies like the Halifax explosion from occurring again. Learning about the explosion can also strengthen our faith in human goodness when we discover the way residents of Halifax, Dartmouth, and nearby communities stepped up to help those affected by the explosion. And finally, learning that Halifax is doing well today can give us hope for the recovery of communities affected by other disasters.

3. SKILL BUILDING

Featured Skill: Author’s Craft  (15 minutes)

Have students work in groups to complete Author’s Craft: Bringing the Story to Life. This activity will prepare them to respond to the writing prompt on page 10. For alternate culminating tasks, see the boxes below.


Differentiated Writing Prompts
For On-Level Readers

Think about the title of the poem. What does the speak “know?” What do the people of Episcopal “know?” Answer both questions in a short essay. Use text evidence

For Struggling Readers

In a well-organized paragraph, explain one way the author helps you, the reader, understand what it was like to live through the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor. Use text evidence to support your answer.

For Advanced Readers

In a well-organized essay, explain how the author helps you, the reader, understand what it was like to live through the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor. Use details from the article as well as the video to support your ideas.

Customized Performance Tasks
For Museum Lovers

Create a museum exhibit for your school about the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor. Your exhibit may include photographs and labels, reproductions of artifacts, and multimedia.

For Historians

Choose another disaster from history. In an essay, compare how people responded to that disaster with how people responded to the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbor. (One option is for students to use “Our World Turned to Water” from the October 2017 issue of Scope.)

Literature Connection: Curricular texts set during WWI

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave 
by John Boyne (novel)

Truce 
by Jim Murphy (nonfiction)

War Horse 
by Michael Morpurgo (novel)