TW Viewpoint | The Halifax Explosion: What Is Courage?

February 13, 2019 | Winston Gosse

Subscribe Today! If you would like to receive weekly emails informing you when new commentaries and Tomorrow's World Viewpoint videos are uploaded, please subscribe to our e-newsletter.

On December 6, 1917 a massive explosion occurred in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia. At precisely 9:04 a.m. the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc, loaded with 2,400 tons of highly explosive wartime cargo, collided with the Norwegian ship SS Imo. What followed was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of the nuclear bomb, as well as a story of selfless courage.

Within twenty minutes of the collision, the resulting fire ignited the explosives on the Mont-Blanc, resulting in a disaster causing horrific damage, injury and loss of life.

Approximately 2,000 people were killed instantly due to collapsed structures, falling debris and fires. Another 9,000 or so were injured and within a half-mile radius, nearly every structure in the path of the explosion was destroyed. A tsunami wave resulting from the blast came ashore and wiped out a settlement of the Mi'kmaq, an indigenous tribe.

The adjacent communities of Dartmouth and Richmond were greatly impacted as well. Many people at the time mistakenly thought the explosion was the result of a German U-boat attack.

As is often the case in disaster scenarios, individuals stand out who display heroic acts of courage and selflessness -- dangerous and life-threatening situations, and who don't shrink back from the challenges set before them.

Such was the case that December morning in Halifax, when Vince Coleman, a railway dispatcher working less than a mile from the explosion, learned what the Mont-Blanc was carrying.

Observing the burning ship just prior to the explosion, both he and his co-worker decided to run from what they knew would be a life-threatening situation. However, remembering that an incoming passenger train carrying upwards of 300 people was only minutes from the rail yard, Coleman turned back and sent an urgent Morse code message, causing the train to stop saving the lives of the passengers.

The Maritime Atlantic Museum reported this chilling version of his message:

"Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys." Minutes later Coleman perished in the catastrophic blast.


It has been said, "Courage is not the absence of fear (as Coleman no doubt had) but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear."

Now the average individual will not likely end up in dramatic circumstances requiring such a courageous response as Mr. Coleman's, but this does not mean that courage is not a requirement at times in daily life.

Charles Swindoll once stated - "Courage is not limited to the battlefield or the Indianapolis 500 or bravely catching a thief in your house. The real tests of courage are much quieter. They are the inner tests, like remaining faithful when nobody's looking, like enduring pain when the room is empty, like standing alone when you're misunderstood."

It also involves making character building decisions ---where to do the right thing does indeed take courage. Circumstances in life do often arise which require difficult and courageous choices and decisions to be made on which character is built.

As Winston Churchill said - "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others."

Oftentimes we cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

So, how do you play the bad cards that maybe have been dealt to you? How do you find ways to be courageous in the face of great adversity and calamity?

With some, life challenges lift them up instead of knocking them down. They become unshaken, courageous and determined to do what is right and not always what is convenient.

Sometimes in fact having courage requires hard labour! In the year 1648, poet Robert Herrick wrote, "If little labour, little our gains". In other words "no pain, no gain."

The people who have learned to look at challenges as valuable teaching moments tend to be the wisest and strongest. They don't shrink from challenge but rise to the occasion with courage.

Coleman was killed in the massive explosion that fateful day, but the heroism, courage and selflessness he displayed in the face of imminent danger may well have been responsible for the safety of many lives as all incoming trains to Halifax came to a screeching halt.

Coleman didn't live on to experience life and to view the positive results stemming from his sacrifice, but his example of courage is something that will live on and from which we can all learn.

The next time you are faced with a particularly difficult and trying challenge which requires great courage, ask yourself what can I do and what can I learn from the hand dealt to me.

Watch The Halifax Explosion: What Is Courage? on YouTube at Tomorrow's World Viewpoint