Journalists as First Responders to the Big One

By Michael Dupuis

Victoria residents are regularly reminded of the possibility of the Big One – a sudden 8.0 or greater earthquake and tidal wave creating disaster caused by a major movement in a convergent plate boundary known as the Cascadia Induction Zone. The result of a Cascadia fault earthquake and ensuing tsunami to Victoria, Vancouver Island and the Pacific Northwest coast could be thousands of deaths and injuries, homelessness to countless number of people, millions of dollars in property damage, and large scale infrastructure destruction.

Has a disaster of this proportion happened before in Canada to a coastal city? The answer is yes.  

Did journalists respond effectively to this disaster? Once again, the answer is yes.

On December 6, 1917 two ships collided in Halifax harbour. One of the vessels, the French steamer Mont Blanc, was carrying a cargo of 3,000 tons of munitions destined for use against German forces on WW1 battlefields. Following the collision, Mont Blanc caught fire and twenty minutes later suddenly exploded in a spectacular 2.9 kiloton blast that levelled a 10 square kilometre area of Halifax and Dartmouth. The explosion also generated a 20 metre tsunami in the harbour.

The tsunami caused an unknown number of deaths; the blast 2,000 deaths, most immediate, 9,000 injuries, including 6,000 seriously, and 200 people blinded by flying glass. Over 1,600 houses were destroyed and 12,000 damaged, more than 6,000 people were made homeless, and an additional 12,000 were left without adequate shelter. Property and infrastructure damage was estimated at more than 35 million dollars – about 675 million dollars in today’s money. Without gas supply, newspapers were unable to operate linotype machines, and for several days resorted to hand setting copy.

While military officials, doctors and nurses, firemen and police officers, railroad and dock workers, as well as members of the general public have been recognized as First Responders in the Halifax Explosion story, there is another group that has gone unrecognized for nearly 100 years: local journalists, in particular James Hickey, Peter Lawson, James L. Gowen and John Ronayne. Following the disaster they provided not only desperately needed information to residents about fatalities, the injured and missing, but also details about emergency operations. Moreover, their reporting helped stimulate the remarkable relief response from across Canada, the United States, and as far away as Australia.

James Hickey was an editor for the Halifax Morning Chronicle, bureau chief of the fledgling Halifax Canadian Press office,  and correspondent for the New York Times. Despite being injured in the blast, he scooped all other journalists with the first news bulletin out of the city 30 minutes after the explosion. Later in the day he followed up with a 2,500 word dispatch that was carried Canada-wide and supplied more than 90 per cent of the Halifax story used by AP newspapers.

Peter Lawson was editor of the Halifax Herald, a daily paper owned by Senator William Dennis. After the explosion shook him out of his bed, he raced to the devastated North End of the city – the district near Ground Zero. Realizing that information about the disaster was needed by the outside world, he walked eight kilometres to the nearest working telegraph and wired a news flash. Before day’s end he gathered more details and then wrote and helped hand set a 1,500 word story that was circulated the next morning both locally and regionally.

James L. Gowen was a reporter for the Halifax Daily Echo, the afternoon edition of the Morning Chronicle. At 7 pm on the day of the disaster, he went out into a snow storm to collect information about the dead and injured at enquiry stations and morgues. By midnight, the storm had turned into a howling blizzard. Nevertheless, he continued to gather information, returning home at 3 am in three feet of snow. Within a few hours he went back on the streets in the bitter cold to shelters and hospitals to compile more information. Filled with valuable information for the public, his story made the paper’s next issue.

Daily Echo marine reporter John Ronayne was the only Halifax journalist to die in the explosion, and he did so chasing a story. Soon after fire erupted on Mont Blanc, he phoned his editor to explain that he was going to investigate the vessel burning in the harbour. He had just crossed over a railway foot bridge leading to Pier 7, when Mont Blanc detonated at Pier 6. On the bridge were 150 curious onlookers who were killed instantly when Mont Blanc exploded. Ronayne was fatally injured by the blast and lay moaning on the ground with half his face scalded as though with steam. Found by a friend, he soon died. Two days later he was eulogized in his paper under the headline Died Doing His Duty.

Should a Maritime disaster similar to or greater than the Halifax explosion happen to Victoria, under chaotic circumstances, it will be the job of local journalists to talk to survivors and get their stories, gather information about the dead, injured and missing, and provide the public with information about relief and recovery efforts.

Let us hope they would fulfill this role as effectively and courageously as their counterparts did 100 years ago in Halifax. 

Michael Dupuis is a retired history teacher and writer. He is the author of Bearing Witness Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion.

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