I was there...
• James Pattison was on his way to school,

Mr. James Pattison was a young boy living with his family in the Richmond District. On December 6, he and his brothers Gordon and Al were on their way to Richmond School. The explosion took his father, his younger brother and his home. His mother and older brother survived. The following is an interview with A, conducted by Janet Kitz. Here A tells his remarkable story. (K= Ms. Kitz, A= Mr.Pattison)

K: Go back to the morning of the explosion, where were you?
P: Well we had left home, that’s where some of the controversy over the time of the explosion occurred, and some people said it was before 9 o’clock.
K: Yes…
P: And that’s not so.
K: No.
P: Because we were on the winter schedule, school went in at nine thirty, and that’s where some of the, you might say…
K: Confusion?
P: Indecision…
K: Yes, people forget.
P: We were on our way to school, we had left home, well, I suppose it must have been just about nine o’clock.
K: Yes, did you see the ship burning?
P: We didn’t see the Mont-Blanc, but we did see, the Imo as I say, was headed right in, kind of diagonally, across the harbor in the direction towards the Mont-Blanc. And then of course the explosion took place. We were right at the foot of Russell Street.
K: You were pretty close then.
P: Oh yes! And we were right on what was then Campbell Road, but is now Barrington Street, right at the foot of Russell Street.
K: Where did you live? Where was your house?
P: We were right on the waterside of Campbell Road, just north of Young Street. There was a drug store on the corner, a Mr. Mumford ran the drugstore. And then there was, the company had two or three houses belonged to the company, Acadia Sugar Refinery. The company had been after my father to come down and live in their house. It wasn’t too agreeable as far as we were concerned because we were very happy with our home on Gottingen Street. But he eventually gave in and we moved down. We were more or less just getting settled in, it was late in the fall, I remember, when we moved down there and that’s where we were living at the time. I’ve forgotten the number of the house.

K: So your house would have been completely destroyed?
P: Oh yes, and it burned.
K: It burned did it? Of course, it was right in the northern section…
P: We were using coal for fuel, and of course the kitchen stove was on, and the other heating system was on, and of course when the house collapsed, why…
K: A wooden house hadn’t a chance.
P: My mother would have lost her life too, if she had been in the house.
K: Where was your mother?
P: She had just gone out into the back yard, and that’s the only thing that saved my mother. I don’t know whether it was a part of the house that blew out or whether there was another shed or a building. Between our place and the place south of us there was a high board fence, I think the fence or the roof of the building blew over, my mother happened to be underneath it, and I think that saved her.
K: Was she badly hurt?
P: Well I imagine she was bruised.
K: Shocked?
P: Yes, shocked. From what we gathered mother said it was a cartridge buried in the joint, which would have been dangerous because of blood poisoning. Dr. Boris tended mother for her hand. But it did come back.
K: She was able to use her hand again?
P: Yes.

K: So you were walking toward Richmond school with your brother and sister?
P: No, just my brother, my two brothers. We were going down to look at the fire, the ships. We were single file running along crossing the street. The fire engines passed us going down towards the harbour. Of course we didn’t know what was on fire, all we could hear was the fire alarms going, and the Patricia went by. Then, of course, the explosion took place. We didn’t hear the explosion… so much concussion.
K: Knocked flat immediately were you?
P: Oh yes… and that’s another case of the strange things that happened. Now can you imagine how… both Gordon and myself had on jackets and these cardigan sweaters. After the explosion neither one of us had our jackets on.
K: It’s peculiar isn’t it?
P: My brother lost one of his boots. Now if you can explain to me how a laced boot...
K: It seemed to be drawn off like suction wasn’t it? Was his foot badly damaged?
P: It didn’t seem to be, there were no cuts. It was bruised, and we both had sprained ankles. It must have been a real strain on the boots.
K: Surely, because they were tightly laced.
P: It wasn’t shoes back then, it was laced boots. I had a hard time recognizing my brother, we were all black as tar, coated with something similar to that black dust, and it was all greasy. I didn’t recognize Gordon. There was a stone wall along the land side of Campbell Road, below the protestant orphanage. You couldn’t look over it. That was gone, flattened right out.
K: Were you wet?
P: Oh yes! Soaking wet! I was down in the harbour when I became conscious. I was flat on Campbell road. I remember pushing the power lines off… see the trolley lines all ran out in the center, we were right out in the center of Campbell Road. What amazed me is that we weren’t electrocuted, those power lines were down.
K: And were touching you?
P: Oh yes, I can remember working to push them off.
K: When you woke up you had been unconscious for a little while?
P: I think we were in shock, because I can remember pushing myself , I was lying flat on the street… and I seemed to be in water; there seemed to be a depth of water on the road. I remember pushing myself up with my hands, trying to get on my knees. And whether there was another shock then or whether I kind of collapsed again I don’t know. I remember falling down and striking my face on the road, and the next time I came conscious I noticed my nose was bleeding. And there was, looked like there was a shingle nail right in my face. I remember pulling the nail out and looking at it, and wondering where that came from. As I said, I got up and climbed over the rocks, that was the stone wall, and Gordon was in the field, what was more or less the recreation ground of the protestant orphanage. The only reason I recognized Gordon was I recognized his watch. We both thought we should get home.

K: What about your other brother?
P: Al was killed.
K: Did you know that at the time?
P: No.
K: You just didn’t find him?
P: No, Alan must have been killed instantly. There was a deep depression across his forehead.

P:  So then we wandered around there for I don’t know how long. We started back up over the hill. We must have got out on Russell Street again, we went up by a house, and it just looked like a beaver dam, that was this house. There was a man on top of that house, tearing at what looked like matchwood, kindling, just in a big pile. And he was on that tearing at that…
K: …trying to get at his family.
P: They’re no question about it because you could hear someone in there screaming. He had a horrible gash across the front of his face. I can’t remember too much, but I do remember we gradually worked our way up toward Gottingen Street. There was a house that was on fire there. The house had dropped down onto the foundation, we lay down against the house the side of the house to get warm and dried out.
K: My goodness, to think of those two little boys!
P: I don’t know how long we stayed there. Then we went right on out Gottingen Street to what they called the North Common, later they used some of that to build the Hydrostone. That was right at the head of Young Street. There was a big house that’s still standing on the corner.

P: Then my brother and I were in the commons. The people were coming around and giving us clothes. Somebody gave me a raincoat, I think it was one of the Killem family that gave us a raincoat and somebody gave me a stocking cap but it was loaded. Vermin!
K: Oh dear! Oh dear!
P: It’s a wonder that they even bothered me because my hair was in such a state that you would have thought that nothing could have got into my hair.
K: To add to all your troubles…
P: That was something we could take care of. After we got that they told us there was going to be another explosion and we had to get out. We stayed on the North Common for quite a while. Gordon and I were talking in a kind of semi-stupefied way and we said let’s go down, because we knew the Sugar Refinery had a boat, a lighter I should call it. It always ran back and fourth between Central Wharf and up at the Acadia Sugar Refinery at Richmond and down at the Acadia Sugar Refinery in Woodside. So we said let’s go down and we’ll get on it and go over to my grandfather’s in Woodside. So we walked down.
Now this Mr. Mitchell said he picked Gordon and I up but I can’t remember that. But I know we walked part of the way, we were heading for Central Wharf. That’s where the Ragus used to land. So eventually we got down there and we were standing around waiting. It was getting on into the afternoon and a government… well, it was another boat that used to run back and fourth between the marine and fisheries and out to the forts out at the mouth of the harbor. It came in to the dock and I guess we must have asked them if they knew anything about the Ragus. The captain wanted to know what we wanted it for. We said we wanted to get across to Dartmouth to go to our grandfather’s. He must have known because he didn’t give us any encouragement that we would get across in the Ragus because she was sunk up in the north end. So he said well, he would take us across to the marine and fisheries. He said he couldn’t go any further than that but he’d take us across. So we got aboard and he took us across there. It was steam driven, like a tugboat. We climbed out. I guess they helped us up onto the dock. A man by the name of Harvey was the superintendent of the marine and fisheries. I thought at one time that he was going to kick us back off into the harbor. Oh, he gave us a rough time and ordered us off the wharf! Really gave us a rough time, tand what he was going to do to us, and… I think he was off his head….
K: With shock yes….

P: So anyway, we got up to the railroad tracks. And why we ever attempted to go down the tracks instead of walking up the main road I’ll never know. We started down the railroad until we’d almost reached the Sugar Refinery at Woodside. Then we went up over the hill, just south of the Nova Scotia Hospital, went up through the fields and were at my grandfather’s house.
K: It was amazing nobody spoke to you. There were two little boys wandering around. Nobody suggested you go to the hospital to get treatment and cleaned up?
P: No I can’t remember speaking to a soul. The only person was one that gave me something that looked like a raincoat, and this stocking cap. Then once we got over there, why, my grandfather and uncle weren’t home at the time. I guess they’d gone to Halifax. But my aunt and grandmother, they started to try to get us cleaned up.
K: Pretty shocked seeing the two of you come in like that.
P: Oh yes. Of course we didn’t know where my mother was. My two uncles came to Halifax as soon as they could, and started looking for mother and my brother and sister. They found mother at the YMCA in Halifax. There was a fellow, some sailor off the American hospital ship… the Old Colony. He was the first to see mother, he picked her up and got some conveyance and took her to the YMCA over on Barrington Street. They kept mother there and eventually they got transportation to bring my mother over to my grandfather’s. From then on it was a matter of getting us all cleaned up.
K: Trying t get the threads together again.

P: As I say, it was a terrible shock for her. It’s hard to understand, there are things I remember well, but I can’t understand why I didn’t remember other things. I seemed to be in a kind of fog.
K: I think shock has a lot to do with it. People didn’t behave typically did they?
P: Oh no. That’s quite true.
K: You say people didn’t even seem to speak to you? This is what so many people have remarked on, that people weren’t all chatting to one another and saying, “What happened?” and “Are you all right?”. It was as if there was a silence.
P: I can’t remember. Oh yes, that did come into my mind at the time of the explosion. It came into my mind, “Is this the end of the world?”. Because there wasn’t a sound! You couldn’t hear a sound. Then of course you might say that things cleared off a little and you could hear noises like, well people screaming, and of course you could hear the places burning.
K: The crackling of fire must have been noisy.
P: Some of these fires were really serious. When the places started to burn they just spread from one to the other, they were so close together.
K: And you tried to get to your own home, did you realize then that it wasn’t possible?
P: I don’t know. That’s one of the things that now I can’t understand. I remember when we got up to Gottingen Street, talking back and forth to Gordon, we said we’d go back down home, and we did start back down Young Street.
K: Maybe you just saw the flames and the smoke all along and…
P: I can’t remember paying any attention to that. I do remember that people came up, some of the navy people, and told us to get back. They drove us back up into the open. They were afraid that the magazine at the dockyard would go off.
K: And afterwards, were you given a relief commission house?
P: No, we were over with my grandfather. The relief commission was formed to reimburse people. I don’t know whether Gordon said anything to you or not about that. He’s very disturbed over that and I don’t blame him because, for instance they granted mother twenty-eight dollars a month to keep herself and to bring up two boys. I was thirteen. My birthday was in October. Gordon is a little over a year older than I am.
K: Your father should have gotten a pension from the Sugar Refinery.
P: Well you being a lady, I wouldn’t tell you what I think of the Acadia Sugar Refinery.
K: Really!
P: I haven’t got a very high opinion of them.

K: There were so many men killed down there in the refinery.
P: Oh yes, there was another nephew, McNeil, his uncle was also at the Refinery, He was a laborer; he looked after the barns and drove one of the wagons around the refinery. They had horses there. I can remember a remark this old chap used to make. He’d say, well, he never got his wish, “If anything ever happens to me I’d like to die in a beer vat”! Poor old man, I guess he was drowned.
K: Probably.
P: I’ve been trying to remember how high that sugar refinery was…
K: I’ve seen photographs and everything, of all that sugar and everything… You must have realized that the refinery had been destroyed.
P: As I’ve said, it amazes me now, looking back, why I didn’t seem to realize what had taken place and why we acted the way we did.
K: I’m sure that when people are in a state of shock they tend to… I don’t know. So often this seems to have happened. And your schoolbag, your satchel, that helped to save you!
P: Oh yes, there’s no question about it. You can imagine those books and leather…
K: Like a bit of armor almost.
P: Yes, a real cushion. If it had hit me, whatever cut that schoolbag, that metal must have been something very sharp! I would have been in bad shape. As it was, my back has really never, it still has effected me. My back was in pretty bad shape for quite a long time.
K: And the force that cut that must have hurled you!
P: Whatever it was hit me quite hard. From the damage it did to the schoolbag it was surprising that I didn’t get hit with anything else.
K: And you didn’t go into the hospital at all afterwards? You weren’t seen by a doctor?
P: No.
K: And Gordon either?
P: Neither one of us. There’s no question about it; it effected Gordon’s hearing. His hearing is not too keen in one ear.
K: This is something that is rarely mentioned in any of the books, the number of people who were left partly deaf because of it. And yet I’ve met a lot of people who’ had eardrums burst and things, but you never read about that. Blindness is mentioned all the time. It stands to reason people must have had their hearing effected by being in the middle of an explosion like that.
P: It was the compression, and the sudden vacuum the other way, that followed that caused such a reaction. There were a lot of people who lost eyes. Jean Crowdis, her mother lost an eye.
K: But she said her mother wasn’t as badly hurt as the aunt.
P: Miss Kennedy?
K: I don’t…Kennedy, I believe that is the name.
P: We were pretty young when we lived up beside the Crowdis family, Gordon used to drive Jean around on his bicycle!
K: He must have squired quite a few ladies!
P: Gordon was popular with everybody.

K: And you lived with your grandparents afterwards did you? Grew up with them?
P: Well, yes I’d say we did. I went back to school in Dartmouth for two or three years. Gordon went to work with the machine company in Dartmouth, and then he went with Imperial Oil. He was with Imperial Oil for quite a while, then he decided he'd like go to sea. So he went to sea for a couple of years and when he came back he had a variety of mechanical jobs. He was the Foreman in a machine shop and then head of a utility plant for a number of years until he retired.
K: But what a thing! There was your mother suddenly left with no support and two boys to bring up. And the terrible loss! Your father was working at the sugar refinery?
P: My father was a mechanical superintendent at the Acadia Sugar Refinery and of course he was on duty at the refinery on December the 6th. There was some controversy as to the exact time of the explosion. It seems strange that there wouldn’t have been an official time. I have my father’s watch, the watch that he was wearing at the time of the explosion. As I say, it was my watch, his own watch was at the jewelers, having a main-spring [replaced], and he was using my watch. So that’s how he happened to have it, and I now have it.
K: Yes, what happened to your father? Was he badly injured
P: Well, he lost his life
K: I didn’t realize he was killed…
P: Oh yes, December 6, ten after nine was on the watch, but his body was not found until the following April.
K: Really,
P: Well of course that…made it a...
K: Very, very difficult for your mother...
A: Oh Yes, that’s right, it just more or less renewed the whole happening and brought back so vividly, to her, and of course especially after my sister and my younger brother both lost their lives.

   Amid hysterical people, burning houses and general devastation James and Gordon managed to reach the safety of  their grandfather’s house in Woodside. They were among the fortunate. Too many were killed, sustained debilitating injuries that effected them for the rest of their lives, such as deafness caused by the force of the explosion, or blindness caused by flying glass.

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