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Vancouver’s Own Port Explosion Was Fuelled by Sodium Chlorate and Whisky

On a quiet spring day 75 years ago, the Green Hill Park blew.

Tom Hawthorn 7 Aug 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer and a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

A small fire on the docks followed by minor explosions. Firefighters rush to drown the flames. Then, a massive explosion rips through the heart of a city.

The catastrophe in Beirut’s harbour this week has historical antecedents — notably, the Halifax Explosion of 1917, when a freighter filled with high explosives collided with another ship, killing nearly 2,000 people, and the Texas City disaster of 1947, when a cargo of ammonium nitrate ignited, setting off a series of explosions and one of the largest man-made, non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, killing about 600 people in America’s worst industrial accident.*

Though much smaller, Vancouver endured its own wartime harbour disaster. At one minute to noon, on March 6, 1945, the steamship Green Hill Park, filled with general cargo, including tons of sodium chlorate, a chemical used to manufacture explosives, caught fire before exploding.

The blast and subsequent fires rendered some bodies unrecognizable. Windows were shattered with glass littering streets, offices and apartments throughout the downtown core. The war was still on and some thought the Japanese had bombed the harbour. Those who were witnesses have never forgotten.

A.J. Stewart Smith, today an emeritus physics professor at Princeton, was a Grade One pupil at General Gordon Elementary in Kitsilano on that day. He was walking home for lunch to the family home at 2595 W. Second Ave. when a tremendous thunderclap startled him.

The boy raced home. Stew discovered his mother had no more idea than he about what caused the terrible roar. Soon, the radio reported an explosion in the harbour. After school, his childless neighbours, Hugh and Ella Barker, offered to drive Stew and his mother downtown to tour the site. Lillian Smith had been a legal secretary in a building at Hastings and Granville and was keen to see it. The boy was shocked by the destruction before him.

“There wasn’t a single glass window remaining,” he recalled. 

They drove closer to the harbour, the streets a shimmering sea of light reflecting off broken glass. Smoke poured forth from the docks, but the route to the harbourfront was blocked.

Hours earlier, an ordinary Tuesday workday had turned into a catastrophe.

The Green Hill Park was berthed at Pier B, the port side of today’s Canada Place. Longshoremen were busy loading cargo bound for Australia, including pickles, sunglasses, lumber, tin plate, newsprint, lifeboat rockets (distress flares), box shooks (the slates of wood nailed or stapled together to make such items as fruit boxes), cellulose in wooden crates, and over-proofed whisky in barrels, as well as 1,985 drums of sodium chlorate, each drum weighing 112 pounds (50.8 kilograms).

Machinists and pipefitters were handling ship repairs, while the crew was busy with regular duties of their own.

Deep inside the ship, 15 workers with Boshard & Son were painting the fresh-water tanks beneath the engine bed. They decided to knock off early for lunch, a decision that undoubtedly saved their lives, though did not keep them from injury.

Just before noon, longshoreman Ralph Atkinson spotted a whisper of yellow smoke rising from No. 3 hold. He raised the alarm and men raced with hoses to put out the fire. The smoke became too dense and they left just as the first explosion rolled the ship. It was followed by three other explosions as men throughout the vessel raced to the deck.

At 11:59 a.m., the ship was rocked by an explosion heard by a Kitsilano schoolboy on his way home for lunch.

Cargo littered the harbourfront, the sky raining pickles. Sunglasses were later found as far away as Lumbermen’s Arch in Stanley Park. Distress flares sputtered down onto downtown streets.

In the harbour, float agent Harry Miller acted quickly to extinguish every bit of flaming debris that landed on his Shell Oil barge.

On the second floor of the Marine Building, J.B. Leyland, campaign secretary for the local Red Cross, was knocked from his office chair onto the floor from a blast nearly 300 metres away. He was showered with broken glass.

Desperate scenes played out aboard ship.

In No. 1 hold, eight longshoremen employed by Empire Stevedoring Ltd. had been told to knock off early for their midday meal. The last two men to leave were Tommy Johnson and Kenneth Weir. They were about to exit when knocked down by the explosion.

“We got to the escape hatch and found it blocked by a body,” Weir said afterwards.

“It was Bill Lewis, one of our gang. I tried to see if he was still alive, but he had apparently been hit by the door of the escape hatch from No. 2 hold, which was also blocked. By this time, the hatch was full of greenish smoke, and we figured our number was up, so we shook hands and said goodbye to each other.”

They anticipated another explosion or, worse, fire, when they spotted a rope that had been blown into the hatch. They hitched a bowline and climbed onto the deck.

The freighter Green Hill Park after exploding. An inquiry headed blamed the disaster on ‘improper stowage of combustible, dangerous and explosive material… and the ignition thereof by a lighted match.’ Neither the sodium chlorate nor the flares had been marked as explosive. And longshoremen insisted no one had been smoking in the hold. Photo: City of Vancouver Archives.

At least two of the painters, who minutes earlier had been deep inside the ship, were blown by the explosion into the water. “I swam to a log,” Nick Panamaroff said, “when I saw another fellow who seemed to be in trouble. I started to give him a hand when a tugboat came along and picked us both up.” Dan Daley, 56, had been knocked unconscious. The men were rescued by the Royal Canadian Navy tug HMCS Glendevon.

Crew member Alfred Coombs, the 17-year-old son of a Boer war veteran, was blown off his feet into the galley by the first explosion. He picked himself up and was racing to the bow when another explosion sent cargo skyward. “Metal, wood — everything — seemed to be flying in the air,” he later said from his hospital bed. He climbed over the side, hanging onto the anchor. He was reaching for a rope when he slipped into the water.

Covered with oil and surrounded by bobbing bits of driftwood, he clung to a breakwater log as rocket flares landed in an unnerving haphazard pattern. He was pulled from the water by firefighters.

Elsewhere in the city, stunned residents brushed glass from their clothes. The windows on the north side of the Marine Building were blown out. At the Merchants’ Exchange, shards of glass flew into rooms like shrapnel, the flying glass injuring several members. The Immigration Building, the Vancouver Club, and the post office at Granville and Hastings (today’s Sinclair Centre) all suffered broken windows. At the David Spencer Ltd. department store, some 21 plate-glass windows had been blown out along the part of the store facing Cordova Street.

Broken windows were recorded as far east as Victory Square.

A local glass firm estimated some 10,000 feet of plate glass had been shattered at a cost of $21,500 (more than $300,000 today).

Ten minutes after the first explosion, volunteer firefighters boarded the fireboat Louisa in North Vancouver. They would not be relieved from their duties for 13 hours. The Vancouver fireboat J.H. Carlisle, docked in False Creek, joined the Louisa in spraying water onto the Green Hill Park from the seaward side.

Firefighters could not extinguish the blaze, so the freighter was towed from Pier B-C away from the floating gas docks and beyond Brockton Point in Stanley Park.

Three men volunteered to stay with the ship as it was towed from the berth. Chief mate A.C. Horsfield, third mate Stuart McKenzie and 19-year-old crewman Clarence Martin, who had been working in the engine room at the time of the first explosion, re-boarded the burning vessel to ensure the towing lines held fast. They were joined by one of the ship’s fireman, identified by the newspapers only as C. Martin.

“What are you coming on board for?” demanded chief mate A.C. Horsfield.

“I’ve got $250 in cash and all my clothes in my bunk, and I’m going to get it,” the fireman replied.

“You are taking big chances,” Horsfield said.

The fireman soon returned to the deck, dragging behind two kit bags.

“Got it all,” he said.

The crew stayed in the stern, as the heat from the raging fire caused the deck plates to warp within six metres of their spot behind the aft funnel.

An attempt to beach at Stanley Park was unsuccessful as currents and a rising tide pushed the flaming vessel away from the shore. The Green Hill Park was then towed beneath the Lions Gate Bridge past Prospect Point to be beached near Siwash Rock, where the still-flaming vessel would be less of a hazard to other vessels as it burned itself out.

Four hours after the fire started, the last of the surviving crew were taken ashore by the police boat Teco II.

The Green Hill Park was still smoldering 24 hours later.

851px version of greenhill-beached-stanley-park.jpg
The sky rained pickles and sunglasses. Afterwards, still burning, the Green Hill Park was towed beyond Brockton Point in Stanley Park. ‘Had there been… anything like a full cargo of explosives, the story would have been an entirely different one and might have been terribly tragic,’ The Province noted in an editorial. Photo: BC Archives.

In the aftermath of the chaos, a grim body count was conducted. One body was identified by a portion of burned clothing, another by a pair of glasses as vouched by an optometrist. Dead men turned up alive — W.L. Forrester, a painter who was living at the Salvation Army Hostel, turned up a day later in the newsroom of the Vancouver Sun to let them know he was not dead as feared.

The death toll was eight, six longshoremen and two crew. Five men were killed in No. 2 hold when the explosion in No. 3 blew the bulkhead against them; William Thomas (Bill) Lewis, whose body blocked the escape of Weir and Johnson, was killed trying to escape from No. 1 hold. As well, two crew, Julius (Joe) Kern (or Kun), a 41-year-old mess boy believed to be a returned soldier originally from Hungary, and Donald Munn, 57, from Scotland, died in a cabin in the tween decks above the explosions. Despite the extensive damage and many injuries, Vancouver residents knew they had been lucky.

“Had there been a full cargo, or anything like a full cargo of explosives, the story would have been an entirely different one and might have been terribly tragic,” The Province noted in an editorial the following morning. “The experience of Vancouver could have been on par with that of Halifax in 1917.”

The newspaper, while touting the city’s role as a Pacific seaport, insisted such shipments occur elsewhere.

“There does not appear to be any good reason why ships loaded with dangerous cargoes of explosives should be moored on our doorstep,” The Province stated.

An investigation of inquiry headed by the judge Sydney Smith blamed the disaster on “improper stowage of combustible, dangerous and explosive material… and the ignition thereof by a lighted match.” Neither the sodium chlorate nor the flares had been marked as explosive. The lit match, for which of course there was no evidence in the burned remains of the hold, was presumed to have been dropped by a longshoreman smoking a cigarette.

The unionized longshoremen insisted there had only been smoking on deck, never in the hold.

The judge’s report also had a suggestion as to how the disaster unfolded so quickly. “We think the true explanation of the speedy spreading of the fire was that whisky escaped from one or more of the barrels, spilled into the surrounding combustible cargo, and was ignited by a lighted match carelessly dropped by a longshoreman in the vicinity,” the report stated.

The report noted lunch pails soldered at the base to hold liquids, as well as hot water bottles secreted inside jackets, were evidence the alcohol barrels had been tapped. “It seems to us these were there for the express purpose of carrying away pilfered whisky,” the report stated.

The 7,130-gross-ton ship, which had been built in 1944 as part of the government’s wartime shipbuilding efforts for the merchant navy, was originally launched as Fort Simcoe before completion at Burrard Drydock after which the steamship was renamed for a park in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

Though heavily damaged by the fire and explosions, it was refloated and towed to a shoal on the North Vancouver side of the harbour. Greek interests purchased the vessel “as is” and after repairs at Burrard Drydock it returned to freighter service under the name Phaeax II. One year and 109 days after the explosion, the ship returned to freighter service. The following year it delivered a load of ilmenite, a black iron-titanium oxide used in alloys, from India to Delaware.

In 1965, the steamship, operating under Panamanian registration and renamed Lagos Michigan, pulled into Vancouver harbour to dock at Pier B-C, at the exact berth at which it had caught fire 20 years earlier. A marine reporter noted it was adjacent to two scow-loads of lumber. Two years later, the old vessel was sold as scrap to shipbreakers in the Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung.

Seventy-five years later, a disaster on the other side of the world revived memories of a terrible day in Vancouver.

Smith, a boy who witnessed the aftermath went on to win a Mann Cup championship in lacrosse with the Vancouver Carlings before embarking on a brilliant academic career as a physicist.

Panamaroff, the painter who rescued an unconscious workmate, gave up manual labour to become a hairdresser. He died in 1984, aged 61. Daley, the man he had rescued from drowning, died just two years after the explosion of a heart attack.

The Glendevon, the navy tug that rescued those two men, was long ago converted into a private yacht and still chugs the waters off Vancouver Island.

*Story updated on Aug. 7 at 9:15 a.m. to correct that the Halifax Explosion happened in 1917, not 1919.  [Tyee]

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