Volume 40, Issue 10 October 2005
When Disaster Strikes
Glass Technology Can Change History
by Charles Cumpston
It was a bright, clear morning in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Thursday, December 6, 1917, according to historical accounts, specifically the Halifax Regional Municipality’s website1, Europe was engulfed in World War I, and this Canadian port city was bustling. Halifax, a major seaport on the Atlantic Ocean, is a deep natural harbor, a sheltered inlet that extends nine kilometers inland from the Atlantic coast. The harbor was ice-free, defended by a series of forts. It was a garrison town as well as a naval dockyard.
In early 1917 the admiralty had introduced the convoy system to help reduce ship losses from the fighting. The inner harbor provided ideal conditions for an anchorage to assemble the convoys.
Around 8 a.m. that morning, the Belgian relief ship Imo left its mooring and headed for the open sea. At the same time, the French ship Mont Blanc was heading up the harbor to moor, awaiting a convoy to accompany it across the Atlantic. The convoy was essential because the vessel was carrying a full cargo of explosives. Stored in the holds and stacked on deck were 35 tons of benzol, 300 rounds of ammunition, 10 tons of gun cotton, 2,300 tons of picric acid (used in explosives) and 400,000 pounds of TNT1.
The Imo, much larger and faster than the Mont Blanc, passed into the Narrows. It was traveling fast when the crew of the Mont Blanc first spotted it. The French ship was not flying the regulation red flag to indicate it was carrying explosives. The Mont Blanc signaled the Imo that it was in its correct channel, but the Imo signaled that it intended to bear even further into the Mont Blanc’s channel1.
The Mont Blanc signaled again that it intended to pass to starboard. The Imo signaled back that it was maintaining its course. The Mont Blanc swung to port, toward Halifax, across the bow of the Imo, to pass starboard to starboard.
It was a fatal move. The Imo signaled full speed astern. So did the Mont Blanc. Reversing its engines caused the Imo’s bow to swing right, and it hit the Mont Blanc missing the TNT, but striking the picric acid stored directly beneath the drums of benzol on deck. The impact cut a wedge in the Mont Blanc’s side and ignited a fire.
The Mont Blanc crew immediately abandoned ship in the lifeboats. They rowed for Dartmouth, as the burning ship drifted toward Halifax, propelled in that direction by the Imo’s impact.
The Mont Blanc hit a Halifax pier, setting it ablaze. Members of the Halifax Fire Department quickly responded, and were positioning their engine to the nearest hydrant when the Mont Blanc exploded at 9:05.
More than 1,900 people were killed instantly. Around 9,000 more were injured; 325 acres, almost all of north-end Halifax, were destroyed. Much of what was not immediately leveled burned to the ground. Halifax, for all practical purposes was gone. Every single piece of glass in the entire city was broken.
About 20 minutes had passed between the collision and the explosion, just enough time for spectators, including many children, to run to the waterfront to watch the ship burning. Others had gathered at windows to see the burning vessel. An exceptionally large number of people were injured by flying glass. More than 1,000 survivors sustained eye damage, more than 250 eyes had to be removed and 37 people were left completely blind.
The town’s facilities were not able to cope with a disaster of this magnitude, and to add insult to injury, a blizzard struck the city the following day, dumping 16 inches of snow on the stricken city.
How different some of what happened on that fateful morning would have been if today’s security products had been available. With laminated glass, the 1,000 survivors would not have sustained eye damage from flying glass.
Today’s security glass products could have made a significant difference in many disasters in the past, and these disasters have often been the catalyst for the changes that we have today.
The worst nightclub fire in the United States killed 491 people at Boston’s Coconut Grove on November 28, 1942. Julie Ruth, who has her own consulting company, JRuth Code Consulting in New Lennox, Ill., refers back to that disaster as being instrumental in establishing the fire codes that are in place today.
“There was a lot of combustible material, decorations, so the fire spread quickly. Panic broke out and there was such a crush of people to get out the exit doors that they couldn’t get the door opened. It only opened inward and the result was substantial loss of life,” she explains. “The insurance industry got involved due to this and similar fire-related disasters and was instrumental in getting the fire codes put in place,” she points out.
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may still be fresh in our minds, but these hurricanes are not the first storms to result in major changes for the industry.
Valerie Block, senior marketing specialist for DuPont Building Inno-vations in Wilmington, Del., says that it was Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that started the hurricane regulations and construction that are becoming increasingly common.
When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida, a lot of the homes collapsed and buildings suffered extensive damage. When the authorities in Dade County decided to put in procedures and protocols to prevent such damage, it had an enormous impact on the windows, doors and skylights.
Much of what was discovered to have caused the damage of that storm (such as roof-top gravel responsible for glass damage above a certain height) has worked its way into the codes and regulations today. “The whole idea is to protect the opening,” she says. “Tests were set up for the system, which was new. It wasn’t just the glass but the system that had to meet the criteria.” Block points out that buildings today are being built to a higher standard. “After the four hurricanes in Florida last year, a group looked at the results and there was damage, but nothing like what Hurricane Andrew did,” she says.
Richard Joyce, vice president of sales and marketing for Dlubak Corp. in Blairsville, Pa., said one example that sticks in his mind is the reports of a child running through annealed glass in a storm door, which lead to the requirement of safety glass in these products.
“It may not be a disaster on a large scale, but it’s something that everyone, particularly parents, identified with and glass safety became an issue,” he states.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), when it proposed a safety standard for glass and plastic panels and doors used in homes, schools, public and other buildings in 1976, it estimated that about 190,000 injuries associated with architectural glazing materials were treated annually in hospital emergency rooms.
True, there will always be disasters. But those from the past have fueled the efforts to minimize the damage they cause.
Charles Cumpston is a contributing editor to USGlass magazine
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