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• A Tragic Day for Barbara Orr.

Barbara Orr and her family had just moved into a large house at the corner of Kenny and Albert Streets. When describing this house, Barbara said, “It was a high wooden house covered with [white] asbestos shingles, which was something quite new at the time.”

On the morning of December 6, Barbara was standing by the large bay window in the dining room, which overlooked Halifax Harbour. She called for her brother, Ian, to come and see what was going on. Ian and Barbara were joined at the window by their mother, they watched as the two ships collided.

“They looked like they were deliberately trying to run into each other. They had room to get by - there was no need of a collision.”

“That’s an ammunition boat.”, Ian said to Barbara. Barbara asked, “Will it explode?”

Mrs.Orr replied, saying, “Oh, I don’t think so.”

With that, Barbara decided to go to her friend’s house to see if she was there, so they could go watch the fire. She left the house in a hurry and began running down the hill.

She watched as the Belgium Relief ship headed for the Dartmouth shore, and an ammunitions ship came right into the Halifax shore. She watched as the Mont Blanc burned furiously. “It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst – but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen.

” Suddenly the explosion went off. …I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness.” Barbara later felt that she had been sucked into a tidal wave and survived as a result of her petite size. She described this event, “There was this tidal wave – it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbour. Well this tidal wave, George was saying last night, took a lot of people back into the harbour on the way down. Now he thinks me (I was definitely in the tidal wave, because I was soaking wet and everything), but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way. The terrible burst. I came out of the tidal wave and went right up on the top of Fort Needham.”

Barbara was cut badly and blue from the black rain. One of her tightly laced boots was pulled off. Barbara saw people crying all around her saying, “The Germans are here. The Germans are here.” Barbara corrected them saying a boat had exploded, but no one believed her. Everyone was panicking. Barbara, unable to walk, crawled to her uncle’s house on Gottingen Street. All the homes she passed were collapsed and burning. When she finally arrived, her uncle wasn’t there; however, her aunt, two cousins, and her aunt’s father and mother were there. They asked about Barbara’s family, and she replied by saying, “They’re all gone, there isn’t anybody left.” Her aunt replied saying, “Oh, that’s not true.” They suggested that Barbara go up to a house on Agricola to get help. Barbara took their advice, and crawled to Mrs. Muir’s house. There was no roof on the house. She was immediately given something hot to drink and sent upstairs to lie down on the only bed they had. She stayed there until she was put in Boutlier’s Fish Truck, which was picking up survivors and taking them to Camp Hill Hospital.

All of the survivors, including Barbara, were pushed into the hospital entrance on stretchers. She described what she saw around her, “… I realized that there was something funny about the people. And most of them were dead.” Barbara saw a young man coming, and asked him if she could get a bed. He said yes, and put her on a hospital bed. Barbara described how she felt about her days in the hospital, “Never remember getting a thing. And I was shy, scared, and wouldn’t like to ask. I don’t think I had anything to eat. I couldn’t walk anyways. I hopped when I did get going. Nobody paid any attention. You just laid there and hoped that somebody would come that knew you. That’s just the way you went. You’d see these streams of people going by, looking for people. I thought, well I don’t know who will come, but maybe somebody.”

Ten days after Barbara had arrived at the hospital, she spotted her aunt from Dartmouth, looking for family members. Barbara called out to her, but her aunt responded by saying, “Oh, no, no, you’re not Barbara, because she had red hair.” As a result of the blue in her hair from the TNT and the large amount of cuts on her body, Barbara’s aunt did not believe it was her. Eventually she realized it was Barbara, and took her home to Dartmouth. Barbara lived with her aunt until January. At that point, she had to make a huge decision. She could live with her aunt and uncle in Dartmouth, who had no children, or she could live with her aunt and uncle and their two children that she had visited briefly directly after the explosion occurred. Barbara decided she wanted to live where the children were. The family moved to Truro until spring to recuperate, and then moved back to Halifax.

Barbara described her new family,“…he had his own family, he had me, and Mr. And Mrs. Buchanan, his in-laws. And so he had to find a place for all of us.” Barbara’s uncle was the one to eventually tell her that her entire family had been killed. She had been positive all along that they had all been killed, so the news came as no surprise. Five children, Barbara’s mother, father, uncle, and grandfather, had all been killed.

Barbara couldn’t walk for several months after the explosion, but her injury did not slow her down. She had a relentless spirit. “They told me, the doctors, when they finally saw my ankle, that I’d never take part in sports again, and I’d never do this, and tha,t and the other thing. I can’t do very much, but the one thing I could do was dance. I’ve got balance that you wouldn’t believe. I’ve gone figure skating, played tennis – every game - soccer…For a long time I’d walk along, and zoom, I’d almost fall. It got better.” Barbara later attended Halifax Ladies College, and in 1920, she dedicated the bells to the United Memorial Church for the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower on Fort Needham . She used the $10 000 she received from her old estate to pay for the bells. She played the bells for the first time at the opening ceremony.

Throughout the years, Barbara often dreamed that she was home with her family. The only possession she had from their house was a little piece of broken china. She also had a school picture of her brother, Ian, and her sister, Mary. Barbara was very appreciative to have grown up with her aunt and uncle. She explained what kind of people they were, “They were wonderful people, my goodness. My uncle was a wonderful man. A wonderful family to grow up with…” Barbara lived with her aunt and uncle until she got married to George Thompson. Barbara faced many challenges as a result of the Halifax Explosion, but with the love of her relatives and her strength and courage to move on, she survived.

Next >>  • A Narrow Escape for Ethel Mitchell.