The Inquiry
• Who was to blame?

Almost immediately after the Explosion, citizens and officials demanded answers. While Haligonians knew that there were two ships involved, the Imo and the Mont-Blanc, they were unsure who was to blame. Was the fault in the hands of Captain From of the Imo, exiting the basin through the narrows, in haste to make up lost time? Or did the fault lie with Captain LeMedec, pushing the unflagged Mont-Blanc with its large cargo of explosives into the narrows, that caused the disaster?

On December 12th, 1917, just 6 days after the fatal explosion, in the courthouse on Spring Garden Road, Mr Justice Arthur Drysdale; a native Haligonian would attempt to answer these questions. The Halifax Explosion Inquiry opened with examination of the series of events which unfolded on the morning of December 6th. Testimony from both sides, the Imo, and the Mont-Blanc were heard.

Le Medec was the first to take the stand. He reported that the Mont Blanc was entering the main harbour after having spent the previous evening outside of the anti-sub nets, which were lowered every night, making entrance into the harbour impossible for the Mont Blanc. Le Medec claimed that visibility was clear that morning. As he approached the narrows, the Imo, in an attempt to pass a tug boat pulling barges that was slowing the Imo's exit, was on a course that would cut across the bow of the Mont-Blanc . At this point, the Mont Blanc gave off one signal, “indicating that it would veer slightly more starboard, or to the right” moving towards the Dartmouth side of the harbour.

The Imo, replied with two blasts indicating that it too would move towards the Dartmouth side; and the Mont Blanc then responded with two more blasts and continued toward the Dartmouth side. When the boats seemed that they would crash, Le Medec recalled, he ordered the engines stopped and “bear hard to the left” which put them on the Halifax side of the harbour. This would be an important piece of information in the later Appeals which would take place after the initial inquiry. Just when Le Medec thought danger had been averted, the Imo let out three blasts, which sigaled that the Imo would proceed “full speed astern!”

At that point, Le Medec knew a collision was unavoidable. Fire broke out, Medec knowing the dangerous cargo which the Mont-Blanc carried, ordered the lifeboats to be lowered, and the crew jumped ship rowing to Turtle Grove, leaving the Imo and everyone on shore virtually blind of the danger. Exploding drums drew thousands to the water’s edge to watch.

Unfortunately, most of the crew of the Imo died, leaving very few witness to vouch for the Imo. They did have a witness from the deck who survived the explosion. However like the other witnesses from the Imo, they provided very little extra information as many were disoriented because of the explosion, or were in a position on the Imo which was not conducive to seeing the events of that morning.

Pilot Mackey, who was onboard the Mont-Blanc that morning, was also questioned by Mr.Burchell. The Councilor called into question his competency as well as his sobriety that morning. Burchell sited negligence by Mackey as one of the reasons the Mont-Blanc should be held accountable. He also claimed that the absence of warning flags was also to blame.

After less than two months, Judge Drysdale concluded that the Explosion had occurred because of “violations of the rules of navigation”, gross negligence on the part of Pilot Mackey, and that “the pilot and master of the steamship Mont-Blanc were wholly responsible for violating the rules of the road” . He also condemned the behavior of Halifax Pilots and Harbour Authority and their negligence and their lack of rule enforcement in the harbour.

Haligonians, for the most part, agreed with Drysdale’s conclusions, taking sympathy for the Imo because of the loss of crew members. Inquiry would not end with Drysdale’s conclusions however, and the question of who was to blame would be appealed, not once but twice by the owners of the Mont-Blanc, first to the Supreme Court of Canada, then to Britain to appeal once again.

Drysdale’s conclusions did not satisfy the owners of the Mont Blanc, in January of 1918, they sued the owners of the Imo for two million dollars. The owners of the Imo responded quickly with a counter-suit for the same amount. Judge Drysdale, also presiding in the suit, concluded that the Mont Blanc was to blame.

Almost immediately the owners of the Mont-Blanc “appealed against the said judgment to the Supreme Court of Canada” and on May 19th, 1919, the trial began. The evidence presented in the appeal was much the same as the initial inquiry, with one new piece of evidence which proved that the Mont-Blanc was on the Halifax side of the harbor when it exploded. After hearing all the evidence, five judges concluded as follows: Two Judges (Davids and Idigton J.) found the Mont-Blanc “wholly to blame”, two Judges (Brodeur and Mignault J.J) found the Imo “wholly to blame” and one Judge (Anglin J.) found both ships to be at fault.

These findings were not satisfactory for the owners of either the Imo or the Mont-Blanc and were again appealed to a higher form of justice in the Privy Council in London England, where it was concluded that both the Imo and the Mont-Blanc were at fault, therefore share the responsibility and the blame for the fatal explosion on December 6th, 1917.

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