January 11, 1693 The Wrath of God

“Then came an earthquake so horrible and ghastly that the soil undulated like the waves of a stormy sea, and the mountains danced as if drunk, and the city collapsed in one miserable moment killing more than a thousand people.” Eyewitness quoted by Stephen Tobriner: The Genesis of Noto: An Eighteenth-century Sicilian City

In his 1897 short story The Open Boat, Stephen Crane writes of the puniness of humanity, when bared and exposed to the wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.
“If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? 

On this day in 1693, those Seven Mad Gods got together, and unleashed the wrath of the ages.

ABWCWW Earth s CoreDeep in the ground beneath our feet, a rocky shell comprising an outer Crust and an inner Mantle forms a hard and rigid outer shell, closing off and containing the solid inner core of our planet. Between these hard inner and outer layers exists a liquid core of molten material, comprising approximately two-thirds the cross-section of planet Earth.

The air around us is a liquid, exerting a ‘weight’ or barometric pressure at sea level, of 14.696 pounds per square inch. Scientists estimate the pressures within this outer core to be approximately 3.3 million times atmospheric pressure, generating temperatures of 10,800° Fahrenheit, a temperature comparable to the surface of the sun.

That rocky shell closing us off from all that is actually quite elastic, broken into seven or eight major pieces, (depending on how you define them), and several minor bits called Tectonic Plates.

Over millions of years, these plates move apart along constructive boundaries, where oceanic plates form mid-oceanic ridges. Roughly equal and opposite to these are the Subduction Zones, where one plate moves under another and down into the mantle.

The planet is literally “eating’ itself.

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and one of twenty regions of Italy, lies on the convergent boundary of two such pieces of the planet’s outer shell, where the African plate is subducting beneath the Eurasian plate.  Over time, the forces built up along these subduction zones, are nothing short of Titanic.

Sicily is also home to the terrifying Mount Etna, one of the most active volcanoes, in the world.

The first foretaste of what was about to happen began at 21:00 local time, January 9, 1693. The earthquake, centered on the east Sicilian coast and felt as far away as the south of Italy and the island nation of Malta, had an estimated magnitude of 6.2 on the Richter scale, and a perceived intensity on the Mercali Intensity Scale of VIII – XI: Severe to Extreme. Mercali describes a Category XI Extreme earthquake:

Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly”.

This thing was only stretching and yawning.  Just getting out of bed.

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The main shock of January 11 lasted four minutes with an estimated magnitude of 7.4 and a very large area that reached X on the Mercali scale, and XI in the province of Syracuse.

The soil beneath our feet, ordinarily so substantial and unmoving, behaves like a liquid at times like this. Low density, sandy soils compress in response to applied loads while dense soils expand in volume or dilate. Saturated soils are like unto quicksand, as underground liquids are driven up to form miniature volcanoes called “sand boils, water spouting up from the ground in geysers, rising 30-feet and more.

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Sand boils resulting from the 2011 earthquake, in Christchurch

The catastrophic eruption of 1669 was well within living memory and reports describe minor eruptions on this day as well.  As if even a small volcanic eruption could be called “minor”.

Several large fractures opened in the earth, one 1,600-feet long and nearly seven-feet wide.

Meanwhile the ocean withdrew from the coast, as the Ionian Sea gathered itself, to strike. The initial withdrawal left the harbor dry at Augusta, damaging several Galleys owned by the Knights of Malta.   The tsunami when it came was at least eight feet in height and possibly as high as 26-feet, inundating an area nearly a mile from the shore.

The final death toll of as many as 60,000 is uncertain, unsurprising in light of the fact that whole regions were blotted out. 63% of the entire population was wiped out in Catania, 51% in Ragusa. Syracuse, Noto, Augusta, Modica – all lost between one-out-of-five, and one-in-three.

Reconstruction in the wake of the catastrophe was so extensive, as to spawn a new and unique form of art and architecture, known as Sicilian Baroque.

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The Cathedral of Noto is one of the many buildings constructed in Sicilian Baroque style after the earthquake of 1693

Today, the colossal Mount Etna remains one of the most active volcanoes, on earth.  Sensors placed along the land and seaward flanks of the volcano reveal the alarming discovery that the volcano itself, is moving.  Mount Etna is sliding at a rate of an inch per year and sometimes more.  One eight-day period in 2008 showed a movement of two inches, raising concerns that Mount Etna may one day collapse into itself.

On May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens erupted after a 5.1 magnitude earthquake, resulting in 57 deaths and inflation-adjusted property damage, of $3.3 Billion.  The US Geological Survey called the resulting collapse of the north face of the volcano “the largest debris avalanche on earth, in recorded history”.  Should such an event strike the Stratovolcano that is Mount Etna, the result would be felt from the Spanish coast to the shores of Israel, from North Africa to the French Riviera.

Given geologic time scales, such an event could happen next year, or ten thousand years from now.  No one knows.  We are so puny when compared with the Wrath of God, or of Nature, as you please.

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Ruins of the Norman castle in Noto Antica

Featured image, top of page:  New life before the shattered ruins of the old city of Not (Noto Antica), destroyed on January 11, 1693.  The new city of Noto was built, eleven kilometers away

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February 5, AD 62, The lost City of Pompeii

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting all bodily fluids, to steam.

On February 5 in the year AD 62, an earthquake estimated at 7.5 on the Richter scale shook the Bay of Naples, spawning a tsunami and leveling much of the coastal Italian towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and surrounding communities.

Massive though the damage had been, the region around Mt. Vesuvius and the Bay of Naples had long been a favorite vacation destination for the upper crust of Roman society, with crowds of tourists and slaves adding to some ten to twenty thousand townspeople, bustling in and out of the city’s bath houses, artisans’ shops, taverns and brothels.

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Reconstruction began almost immediately and continued for the next seventeen years.  Until that day, the world came to an end.

Long dormant and believed extinct, nearby Mount Vesuvius had been quiet for hundreds of years.  The mountain erupted on August 24 in the year 79,  propelling a scorching plume of ash, pumice and super-heated volcanic gases so high as to be seen for hundreds of miles.

The Melbourne Museum has created a stunning, eight-minute animation, of the event.

For the next eighteen hours, the air was thick with hot, poisonous gases, as volcanic ash rained down with pumice stones the size of baseballs.  No one who stayed behind stood a chance, nor did countless animals, both wild and domestic.

Most were killed where they stood in the pyroclastic surge, that ground-hugging pressure wave seen in test films of nuclear explosions.  Gasses and pulverized stone dust race outward at 400 MPH in the “base surge” phase, super-heated to 1000° Fahrenheit, instantaneously converting all bodily fluids, to steam.

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The victims of Mt. Vesuvius’ wrath left their imprints in the ash and rock which would be their tomb.  2,000 years later, remarkably life-like plaster casts, depict the final moments of these unfortunate men, women and children.

For those left alive, the suffocating, poisonous clouds of vapor and rock dust pouring into the city, soon  put and end to all that remained.  Imagine putting your head in a bag of cement, with someone pounding the sides.  Walls collapsed and roofs caved in, burying the dead under fourteen feet or more of ash, rock and dust. Neither Herculaneum, Pompeii nor their surrounding communities would see the light of day, for nearly two thousand years.

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Today, we remember the Roman author, naturalist and military commander Gaius Plinius “Pliny’ Secundus for his work Naturalis Historia (Natural History). We see his work in the editorial model of the modern encyclopedia.

With the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum already destroyed, Pliny raced to the port of Stabiae some 4½km to the southwest, to rescue a friend and his family. The sixth and largest pyroclastic surge trapped his ship in port, killing the author and everyone in the vicinity. That we have an eyewitness to the event is thanks to two letters written by Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus (Pliny the Younger), Pliny’s nephew and a man he had helped to raise, from boyhood.

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Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Property owners and thieves returned over time to retrieve such valuables as statues. The words “house dug” can still be found, scrawled on the walls.  And then the place was forgotten, for fifteen hundred years.

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An underground channel was dug in 1562 to redirect waters from the river Samo, when workers ran into city walls.  The architect Domenico Fontana was called in and further excavation revealed any number of paintings and frescoes, but there was a problem.

According to the Annus Mirabilis written by English poet Philip Larkin, sex was invented in the British Isles, in 1963.

“…So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP…”

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Pompeian artwork ranges from the merely hedonistic, to the pornographic

The ancients seem to have been somewhat less, “uptight”.   Life in Pompeii was nothing if not hedonistic.  The place has been described by some, as the “red-light district” of antiquity.  I’m not sure about that, but the erotic art of Pompeii and Herculaneum were WAY too much for counter reformation-era sensibilities.  The place was quietly covered up and forgotten, for another two hundred years.

Pompeii was first excavated in earnest in 1748, but it took another hundred years for archaeologists’ findings to be cataloged, and brought to museums.  In 1863, archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realized that occasional voids in the ash layer were left by the long since decomposed bodies of the doomed victims, of Vesuvius.

A technique was developed of injecting plaster.  Today we can see them in excruciating detail, exactly where they fell.  Men, women and children, the dogs, even the fresh-baked bread, left out on the counter to cool.

Today you can tour the lost city of Pompeii, from the baths to the forum, to the Lupanar Grande, where the prostitutes of Pompeii once “entertained” clients.  Ongoing excavation is all but a race with time, between uncovering what remains, and preserving what is.  Walls surrounding the “House of the Moralist” collapsed in 2010, so-called because its wealthy wine merchant owners posted rules of behavior, for guests to follow: “Do not have lustful expressions and flirtatious eyes for another man’s wife“.

Heavy rains were blamed for the collapse of the Schola Armatorium in 2010, the House of the Gladiators.  Fierce recriminations have followed and doubt has been cast on local authorities’ abilities, to properly preserve what has become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Be that as it may, 2,000-year-old buildings do not come along every day.  There is no replacement for antiquity.

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December 12, 1985 Arrow Air Flight 1285

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

The McDonnell Douglas DC-8 departed Cairo, Egypt at 20:35 Greenwich Mean Time on Wednesday, December 11, 1985. The flight was the first of three legs, scheduled for refueling stops in Cologne and Gander International Airport, then on to a final destination at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the “Screaming Eagles” of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division.

This was Arrow Air Flight 1285, an international charter flight returning with 248 military personnel, following a six-month deployment in the Sinai, part of a Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) peacekeeping mission, overseeing terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Passengers departed the aircraft while refueling in Newfoundland, as the flight engineer conducted his external inspection. Then came the new air crew of eight, after which passengers re-boarded the aircraft. Arrow Air Flight 1285 achieved flight velocity at 10:15 on December 12, 167 KIAS (“Knots-Indicated Air Speed”) and accelerating.

There was no way to know. 256 passengers and crew, had only seconds to live.

Airspeed reached 172 KIAS and then began to drop, the aircraft crossing the Trans-Canada Highway some 900-feet from the runway and beginning to descend. Witnesses on the highway below reported seeing a bright light, emanating from inside of the aircraft. Seconds later, flight 1285 crashed some 3,500-feet from departure, breaking apart and striking an unoccupied building near Gander lake, before bursting into flames.

Of the 248 servicemen, all but twelve were members of 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), mostly from the 3d Battalion, 502nd Infantry.  Eleven others were from other Forces Command units.  One was an agent with the Criminal Investigations Command (CID).  It was the deadliest accident to occur on Canadian soil, the United States Army’s single deadliest air crash in peacetime.  There were no survivors.

Hours later, an anonymous caller phoned a French news agency in Beirut, claiming responsibility for the crash on behalf of Islamic Jihad, a wing of Ḥizbu ‘llāh, (literally “Party of Allah” or “Party of God”) a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon. According to United Press International “Hours after the crash the Islamic Jihad – a Shiite Muslim extremist group – claimed it destroyed the plane to prove [its] ability to strike at the Americans anywhere.”

Canadian and Pentagon government authorities dismissed the claim.

The nine-member Canadian Aviation Safety Board (CASB) investigated the crash and issued a report, over the signature of five members:

“The Canadian Aviation Safety Board was unable to determine the exact sequence of events which led to this accident. The Board believes, however, that the weight of evidence supports the conclusion that, shortly after lift-off, the aircraft experienced an increase in drag and reduction in lift which resulted in a stall at low altitude from which recovery was not possible. The most probable cause of the stall was determined to be ice contamination on the leading edge and upper surface of the wing. Other possible factors such as a loss of thrust from the number four engine and inappropriate take-off reference speeds may have compounded the effects of the contamination”.

The report went on to criticize the antiquated foil-tape Flight Data Recorder as inadequate, as well as a non-functioning cockpit-area microphone.  No one would ever know what flight 1285 sounded like, in those final seconds.

The CASB minority report stated that the accident could have been caused by an onboard explosion of unknown origin prior to impact, and later testified before a US Congressional committee, that it was impossible for a thin layer of ice to bring down the aircraft.

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Memorial service at Dover AFB, December 6, 1985

There were changes in de-icing procedures, but little confidence in the CASB’s official report.  The Canadian government disbanded the board five years later, replacing it with an independent, multi-modal investigative agency – the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

A memorial was erected at the crash site overlooking Gander Lake, a “Silent Witness”, designed by Kentucky artist, Steve Shields.  A stone memorial was erected at Fort Campbell, the Gander Memorial bearing the names of the 248, slain.  The scar on the ground is easily seen from the ground as well as from satellite, and remains there, to this day.

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Feature image, top of page:  “Silent Witness” by Kentucky artist Steve Shields. Arrow Air Flight 1285 memorial at Gander Lake, with a DC-8 taking off in the background. H/T wikipedia

Afterward

Canadian teenager Janice Johnson wanted to find a way to honor the fallen from flight 1285. “I wanted these Families to know that we as Canadians cared.

Johnson (now Nikkel) came up with $20 earned from babysitting, and a letter to the Toronto Star.  Nikkel’s letter sparked an international campaign, resulting in 256 Canadian sugar maple trees in 1986, a living memorial to the fallen soldiers and crew, of flight 1285.

What a Canadian could have told you and Kentucky had to learn the hard way, is that 20-ft. spacing isn’t enough room, for a grove of sugar maples.

Thirty-two years later, the Gander Memorial grove is crowded and tangled and, sadly, no longer viable. The old memorial closed this year, to be replaced in April 2019, if the schedule holds. You can read about it in the Fort Campbell Courier, if you’d like to know more.

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December 10, 1986 The Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

Chernobyl_burning-aerial_view_of_coreThe accident began as a test, a carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Photo by Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Authority

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10, the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

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Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

homeless wild dog in Pripyat

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

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View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages, descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from the forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  Often, increased radiation levels can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, since July.

The work of rescue is ongoing, anticipated to take at least eighteen months.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

The goal is to find homes for as many as 200, of the abandoned dogs of Chernobyl.

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

December 8, 1917 A Gift of Gratitude

The December 7 sun rose over a scene from the apocalypse, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.  1,800 were dead and another 9,000 injured, and not only homeless.  The whole town was gone. 

The participants in this story have long since passed from among us.  Every one.  It is their countrymen who remember a debt of gratitude, one-hundred years in the making.  For near-half a century, this has taken the form of a tree.  A gift, from the people of Nova Scotia, to the people of Boston.

As “The Great War” dragged on to the end of its third year in Europe, Halifax harbor in Nova Scotia was the bustling scene of supply, munition, and troop ships destined for “over there”. With a population of 50,000 at the time, Halifax was the busiest port in Atlantic Canada.

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The Norwegian vessel SS Imo slipped her moorings in Halifax harbor on the morning of December 6, destined for New York City. The French freighter Mont Blanc was entering the harbor at this time, intending to join the convoy which would form her North Atlantic escort. In her holds, Mont Blanc carried 200 tons of Trinitrotoluene (TNT), and 2,300 tons of TNP – Trinitrophenol or “Picric Acid”, a substance then in use as a high explosive.

In addition, the freighter carried 35 tons of high octane gasoline and 20,000 lbs of gun cotton. Not wanting to draw the attention of pro-German saboteurs, the freighter flew no flags warning of her cargo.  Mont Blanc was a floating bomb.

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Mont Blanc was a floating bomb

Somehow, signals became crossed as the two ships passed, colliding in the narrows at the harbor entrance and igniting the TNP on board Mont Blanc. French sailors abandoned ship as fast as they could, warning everyone who would listen of what was about to happen.

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Meanwhile, the spectacle of a flaming ship was too much to resist, as crowds gathered around the harbor. The high-pitched shriek emitted by picric acid under combustion is familiar to anyone who has ever attended a public fireworks display. You can only imagine the scene as the burning freighter brushed the harbor pier, setting that ablaze, before running aground.

The explosion and resulting fires killed over 1,800, flattening the north end of Halifax and shattering windows as far as fifty miles away.  It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, destroying over 1,600 homes on the cusp of a Canadian winter.

Mont Blanc’s half-ton anchor landed over two miles away, one of her gun barrels, three. Later analysis estimated an output of 2.9 kilotons, an explosive force greater than many tactical nuclear weapons.

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The December 7 sun rose over a scene from the apocalypse, as a blizzard descended across Nova Scotia.  Over 9,000 were injured, many gravely so, and not only homeless.  Their whole town was gone.

Boston Mayor James Michael Curley wrote to the American Representative in Halifax “The city of Boston has stood first in every movement of similar character since 1822, and will not be found wanting in this instance. I am, awaiting Your Honor’s kind instruction.”

Halifax explosion, 6Curley was as good as his word. The Mayor and Massachusetts’ Governor Samuel McCall composed a Halifax Relief Committee to raise funds and organize aid. McCall reported the effort raised $100,000 in its first hour alone, equivalent to over $1.9 million, today.

President Woodrow Wilson authorized a $30,000 carload of Army blankets sent to Halifax. Within twelve hours of the explosion, the Boston Globe reported on the first train leaving North Station, with “30 of Boston’s leading physicians and surgeons, 70 nurses, a completely equipped 500-bed base hospital unit and a vast amount of hospital supplies”.

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Delayed by deep snow drifts, the train arrived on the morning of December 8, the first non-Canadian relief train, on the scene.

$750,000 in relief aid would arrive from Massachusetts alone, equivalent to more than $15 million today. Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden would write to Governor McCall on December 9, “On behalf of the Government of Canada, I desire to convey to Your Excellency our very sincere and warm thanks for your sympathy and aid in the appalling calamity which has befallen Halifax”.

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The following year, Nova Scotia sent the city of Boston a gift of gratitude.  A very large Christmas tree.

In 1971, the Lunenburg County Christmas Tree Producers Association sent another tree to Boston, both to promote Christmas tree exports, and to once again acknowledge the support of the people and government of Boston, following the 1917 disaster. The Nova Scotia government later took over the annual gift of the Christmas tree, to promote trade and tourism.

So it is that, every year, the people of Nova Scotia send the people of Boston the official Christmas tree, to be displayed on Boston Common.   The tree even has its own  Facebook page.  More recently, the principle tree is joined by two smaller ones, donated to Rosie’s Place and the Pine Street Inn, two of Boston’s homeless shelters.

The 2018 tree begins the 600-mile journey south

This is no Charlie Brown shrub we’re talking about. The 1998 tree required 3,200 man-hours to decorate, with 17,000 lights connected by 4½ miles of wire and bedecked with 8,000 bulbs.

In 2013, the tree was accompanied by a group of runners, in recognition of the Boston Marathon bombing in April of that year.

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This year’s tree lighting ceremony on Boston Common, November 29, 2018. Hat tip http://www.facebook.com/pg/TreeForBoston/photos/ for the tree images used in this story

The 2018 tree is a white spruce standing 46-feet, for the first time selected from the Cumberland County town of Oxford, and donated by Ross McKellar and Teresa Simpson. It takes two men a day and a half to prepare for cutting, a crane holding the tree upright while the chainsaw does its work. It’s a major media event as the tree is paraded through Halifax on a 53’ flatbed trailer, before beginning the 600-mile journey south.

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For a small Canadian province, it’s been no small commitment. In 2016 Nova Scotia spent $242,000 on the program, including transportation, cutting & lighting ceremonies, and all the promotions which went with it.  The government of the province, says the program is well worth the expense.

“This is about friendship, unity and gratitude to the people of Boston,” said Deputy Premier Karen Casey on behalf of Premier Stephen McNeil. “We are forever appreciative of Boston’s immediate response of aid after the explosion. This tree embodies the spirit of our culture and is our way of saying thank you.”

Feature image, top of page:  This colorized photo only hints at the scale of the disaster.  Hat tip, CBC

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November 21, 1916 Miss Unsinkable

Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Violet Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The maiden voyage of the largest ship afloat left the port of Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. An accident was narrowly averted only minutes later, as Titanic passed the moored liners SS City of New York and Oceanic.

Both smaller ships lifted in the bow wave formed by Titanic’s passing, then dropped into the trough. New York’s mooring cables snapped, swinging her about, stern-first. Collision was averted by a bare 4-feet as the panicked crew of the tugboat Vulcan struggled to bring New York under tow.

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Titanic Captain, Edward Smith

By the evening of the 14th, Titanic was 400 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, conditions clear, calm and cold. There were warnings of drifting ice from other ships in the area, but it was generally believed that ice posed little danger to large vessels at this time.  Captain Edward Smith opined that he “[couldn’t] imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that.”

Lookout Frederick Fleet alerted the bridge of an iceberg dead ahead at 11:40pm. First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines put in reverse, veering the ship to the left. Lookouts were relieved, thinking that collision had been averted. Below the surface, the starboard side of Titanic ground into the iceberg, opening a gash the length of a football field.

Violet_jessop_titanicThe ship was built to survive flooding in four watertight compartments. The iceberg had opened five. As Titanic began to lower at the bow, it soon became clear that the ship was doomed.

Those aboard were poorly prepared for such an emergency. The ship was built for 64 wooden lifeboats, enough for 4,000, however the White Star Liner carried only 16 wooden lifeboats and four collapsibles. Regulations then in effect required enough room for 990 people. Titanic carried enough to accommodate 1,178.

As it was, there was room for over half of those on board, provided that each boat was filled to capacity.  So strictly did Royal Navy officer Charles Lightoller  adhere to the “women and children first” directive, that many boats were launched, half-full.  The first lifeboat in the water, rated at 65 passengers, launched with only 28 aboard.

Lightoller himself survived, only by clinging to the bottom of an overturned raft.

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Violet Jessop was among those first to leave, clutching someone’s forgotten baby.  As ship’s nurse, she was there to look after the comfort of the White Star Line passengers.  Now, this small boat full of confused and disoriented women were being lowered into the cold and darkness of night, while all aboard the great ship was light, and warmth.

Denial is a funny thing, that psychological defense mechanism described by Sigmund Freud, in which a person rejects a plain fact too uncomfortable to contemplate.  There was denial aplenty that night, from the well dressed passengers filing onto the decks, and from Violet Jessop, counting the lighted portholes as the boat creaked ever downward.  One row, then two:  every abandoned stateroom a tableau.  Three, and four:  feathered hats on dressers, scattered jewels on table tops.  Five and then six:  each lighted circle revealing a snapshot, soon to slip out of sight.

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Floating on the still, frigid waters of the north Atlantic, Jessop must have wondered about Captain Smith.  This was not their first cruise together, nor even their first shipwreck.

The White Star Line’s RMS Olympic set sail for New York seven months earlier, with Captain Edward Smith, commanding. Violet Jessop was on duty as the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke performed mechanical tests, on a course parallel to the trans-Atlantic liner. Something went wrong and the tiller froze, swinging the bow of the Edgar-class cruiser, toward the liner. Hydrodynamic forces took over and the two ships collided, just after noon. The hull of the cruiser was smashed, two great gashes carved into the side of Olympic, one below the water line.

Two compartments flooded, but the watertight doors did their job. Olympic limped back to Southampton for repairs. Captain Smith and Violet Jessop moved on to the maiden voyage of her sister ship, the unsinkable RMS Titanic.

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Denial turned to horror that frigid April night in 1912, when six rows of lights became five and then four, and Titanic began to rise by the stern.  RMS Carpathia arrived on the scene around 4am in response to distress calls, and diverted to New York with survivors.  Four days later, a crowd of 40,000 awaited the arrival of 705 survivors , in spite of a cold, driving rain.  It would take four full days to compile and release the list of casualties.

Violet Jessop survived that night.  Captain Smith, did not.

Back in 1907, Director General of the White Star Line J. Bruce Ismay planned a series of three sister ships, to compete with the Cunard lines’ Mauritania, and Lusitania. What these lacked in speed would be made up in size, and luxurious comfort. The three vessels were to be named Olympic, Titanic and Gigantic.

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One of Britannic’s funnels, in transit to the ship

That last name was quietly changed following the Titanic disaster and, on December 12, 1915, the newly christened Britannic was ready for service.

Four years later, the world was at war. Nurse Jessop was working aboard HMHS (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) Britannic.  On November 21, 1916, HMHS Britannic was on station near Kea in the Aegean Sea, when she was struck by a German mine, or torpedo.  Violet Jessop calmly made her way to her cabin,  She’d been here, before.  There she collected a ring, a clock and a prayer book, and helped another nurse, collect her composure.

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After the Carpathia rescue, Jessop complained to friends and family that she missed her toothbrush. Her brother Patrick had jokingly told her, next time you wreck, “look after your toothbrush”.  This time, she didn’t forget it.

Britannic should have survived even with five watertight compartments filled, but nurses defied orders and opened the windows, to ventilate the wards.   In fifty-five minutes, HMHS Britannic replaced her sister ship Titanic, as the largest vessel on the bottom of the sea.

Fortunately, daytime hours combined with warmer weather and more numerous lifeboats, to lessen the cost in lives.  1,035 were safely evacuated from the sinking vessel, keeping the death toll in the Britannic wreck, to thirty.

Violet Jessop survived three of the most famous shipwrecks of her age, and never tired of working at sea. She returned to work as stewardess aboard RMS Olympic after the war, before retiring to private life and passing away, in 1971.

John Maxtone-Graham, editor of “Titanic Survivor”, the story of her life, remembers one last story about “Miss Unsinkable”. Fifty-nine years after the wreck, the phone rang late one night, during a violent thunderstorm. A woman’s voice at the other end asked “Is this the Violet Jessop who was a stewardess on the Titanic and rescued a baby?” “Yes” came the reply, “who is this?” The woman laughed, and responded “I was that baby.”

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

 

September 11, 2001 The Great Rescue of 9/11

The “Miracle of Dunkirk” involved the evacuation of 338,226 stranded soldiers from the beaches of France, the largest waterborne evacuation up to that point, in history.  Seventeen years ago today, the boat lift rescue from the tip of Manhattan, was half again that large.

World War Two began with the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the continent was either neutral, or subjugated to the Nazi regime.

France was all but occupied by May 1940.  The battered remnants of the French military fought a desperate delaying action while all that remained of French, English and Belgian military power in continental Europe, crowded the beaches in desperate flight from the Nazi war machine.

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The “Miracle of Dunkirk” involved the evacuation of 338,226 stranded soldiers from the beaches of France, the largest waterborne evacuation up to that point, in history.  Seventeen years ago today, the waterborne rescue off the tip of Manhattan, was half again that size.

9/11/2001

At 8:46 on the morning of September 11, 2001, five Islamist terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, instantly killing all on board and an undetermined number in the building itself.  At 9:03, another five terrorists crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.

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We now know that attacks would be carried out over the next few hours, against the Pentagon and a place called Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  At the time, there was no way to know that further atrocities wouldn’t be carried out, against New York.  The tunnels and bridges out of Manhattan were shut down almost immediately after the attack and the roads gridlocked, trapping hundreds of thousands of scared and disoriented civilians on the island.  Most wanted nothing more than to get out.

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From Here is New York collection: Gulnara Samoilova, Untitled, 2001. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

As first one tower collapsed and then the second, lower Manhattan became a witches brew of airborne chemicals, borne aloft in vast and impenetrable clouds of dangerous compounds and pulverized construction material.

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“Within one minute of the North Tower’s collapse, the mammoth cloud of thick dust engulfed most of the southern end of Manhattan”. H/T 911research.wtc7.net

As the dark, vile cloud swallowed the city and blotted out the sun, Mayor Rudy Giuliani came on the radio.  “If you are south of Canal Street” he said, “get out. Walk slowly and carefully.  If you can’t figure what else to do, just walk north.”

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Those who walked or ran to the north made their way through clouds of choking, toxic dust to the Brooklyn Bridge, about the only way out of Manhattan.

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The half-million or so who went south, soon found themselves cornered in the 25 acres of Battery Park, trapped with the Hudson River to their right, and the East River to their left.

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At first, a few nearby boats offered assistance.  Ferries, tugs and private craft.  The Coast Guard put out a radio call for anyone in the vicinity.  Dozens of tugboats were the first to answer.  Soon, hundreds of boats were racing to the scene.

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These were strangers helping strangers.  Virtually every vessel was captained by civilians.  For all any of them knew they were heading into a war zone, yet still, they came.  Hundreds of boats carried nearly 500,000 people out of that place to Ellis Island, Staten Island and New Jersey, equivalent to the entire population of Toledo, Ohio.

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The greatest marine rescue in history unfolded over a period of nine hours.   The Dunkirk boat-lift had taken nine days.

Coast Guard Admiral James Loy said it best.  “We grabbed the Staten Island Ferry, the tour boat that goes around the Statue of Liberty and anything else that floated.  And at the same time, we had rallied the wherewithal to take a half a million people, scared and frightened to death, through the Battery and off the southern tip of Manhattan.  That’s an extraordinary story.”

Afterward

The way I remember it, the wreckage of the World Trade Center burned for a hundred days.  With roads impassable and water mains broken, New York City fire boats pumped river water to firefighters at “Ground Zero”.  Other vessels were converted to floating cafeterias and first-aid stations.  Still others shuttled personnel in and out of lower Manhattan, for the better part of two years.

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2,996 innocent people lost their lives when those nineteen swine attacked us that day, more than the United States has since lost in seventeen years of war in Afghanistan. Among those were a stunning 412 emergency services personnel, those who ran TO the disaster, as the rest of the city ran away.  343 of them, were New York Fire. Sixty were Police Officers, from NYPD, New York Port Authority and New Jersey Police Departments. Eight were Paramedics. One was with the New York Fire patrol.

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Fred George, Ash Wednesday, Dusk, 9/12/01, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

6,000 more were injured.  10,000 children lost a parent or were orphaned, entirely.  The list of fatalities among first responders continues to build to this day, with cancer and other illness claiming a third again among this population, compared with any randomly selected group.

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The body of Father Mychal Judge is carried from the scene, the victim of countless unfortunates who chose to jump, rather than burn alive. Father Judge was killed while administering Last Rites.

One of countless stories to emerge from this day, concerns one of those many firefighters who lost his life, while doing his job. In a way, he’s one of the lucky ones. His family had a body they could bury, and not just a smear of DNA, left on a ledge.

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The night before the funeral, this guy’s wife and his buddies “stole” the body, casket and all, with the connivance of some people at the funeral home. They brought him to their favorite beach, and there they spent a last night together, drinking beer and telling stories. The next morning, they brought him back to the funeral home, as they had promised. Their loved one was buried that day, with full honors.

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Susanne P. Lee, Untitled, 2001. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

I don’t know this man’s name or that of his wife, and I’m not sure that it matters. The greater sense of this story, for me, is that of a short life, well lived.  A story of love, and friendship, and loyalty.

May we all be worthy of the friendship, of people such as these.

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Tip of the hat to insh.com (interesting shit), from which most of the photographs in this essay, were borrowed.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.