The massive explosion that devastated Halifax 100 years ago tested all who survived, including a handful of reporters who were the first to get news of the unfolding disaster to the world.
“Their writing stimulated the remarkable relief response that rolled into the city, not only from Nova Scotia and Canada but from the United States,” said Michael Dupuis, author of the recently published book Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
The Dec. 6, 1917, blast — the largest human-caused explosion before the first atomic bomb — followed a collision in Halifax Harbour between the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc and the Norwegian-flagged Belgian relief vessel Imo.
Dupuis’s book recounts the efforts of more than two dozen journalists, including James Hickey, bureau superintendent for The Canadian Press.
Dupuis said he not only wanted to honour their work, but also to find out how the massive story was handled. He said the contributions of print journalists proved key in an age before even radio stations.
The marine disaster, which killed 2,000 people and injured 9,000 more, turned out to be a proving ground for the fledgling Canadian Press, then just three months old.
“It hadn’t really had its teeth cut on a big story,” Dupuis said of Canada’s national news wire service.
The 48-year-old Hickey, who was also an editor for the Halifax Chronicle in addition to being a stringer for The New York Times, was in the Chronicle building on Granville Street in downtown Halifax when the blast shattered a glass door, injuring his left hand and arm.
“His first instincts were to get the news and within 30 minutes he found a working wire and sent that [alert] out and it landed at AP New York,” said Dupuis.
Hickey made several attempts to find a working cable before he was finally helped by John Hagen, manager of the Halifax and Bermuda Cable Company.
2,500-word story filed on day of disaster
Hickey’s initial 100-word bulletin was bolstered later that day by his 2,500-word Canadian Press dispatch, which provided a remarkably accurate account of the disaster. The story ran countrywide and was also picked up by The Associated Press in the U.S.
His work amazes Hickey’s great granddaughter, who said it was only in recent years that family members have come to realize the role he played that fateful day.
In an interview from…