As Nova Scotia pauses today to mark the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion — a massive blast that killed or wounded 11,000 people on Dec. 6. 1917 — people in this province may be reminded of a terrible sea disaster that occurred about 2 ½ months later with an alleged connection to the Halifax tragedy.
The SS Florizel left St. John’s harbour on Feb. 23, 1918 on what was a routine trip for the passenger liner, though in questionable weather. The vessel was to make a quick stop in Halifax to unload freight and passengers, then continue on to New York.
About 5 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1918, in blizzard conditions, the Florizel ran full steam into the rocks at Horn Head Point near Cappahayden on the southern shore of the Avalon Peninsula.
During the next few hours, as the 138 people onboard fought for their lives while the ship was battered against the rocks with cold, roaring waves crashing over the decks, 94 people lost their lives.
In her 1976 book on the Florizel disaster, “A Winter’s Tale,” Cassie Brown publicized what had only previously been rumour — that though Capt. William Martin was ultimately held responsible for the Florizel tragedy, the ship’s chief engineer, John V. Reader, had purposely slowed the engines to make for a later Halifax arrival.
The reason, according to Brown’s book, was that Reader wanted the ship to have to spend the night in Halifax so he could spend the night with his family there who had lost their home 2 ½ months earlier in the Halifax Explosion.
Brown’s claims caused distress for some family members and friends of Reader, and of others mentioned in the book.
In anticipation of this, Brown had sought legal advice before the book was published about potential liability or defamation complaints. Documents contained in the Cassie Brown collection in the archives and special collections at Queen Elizabeth II Library at Memorial University show she adjusted certain statements in her manuscript to protect herself legally, should any legal challenges be made.
The Halifax Explosion occurred seconds before 9:05 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1917. According to the website Nova Scotia Archives, the French cargo ship Mont Blanc — laden with munitions and explosives — collided with the Belgian relief vessel SS Imo in Halifax harbour, causing the largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb. The blast devastated a huge portion of the city and killed 2,000 people, while injuring about 9,000 more.
The impact of the disaster carried far and wide.
Over two months later on the Florizel, some of the passengers were heading to Halifax either to visit family or friends affected by the explosion, or to obtain work in rebuilding the destroyed buildings and infrastructure.
Reader was anxious to see how his family members were doing. The Florizel would never make it.
According to Brown’s book, “rumours were rampant” about what happened to the Florizel. Given that the First World War was still on, rumours ranged from the ship being torpedoed by a German submarine to an act of sabotage by way of the ship’s compass being tampered with, to Martin and others being drunk.
None of those rumours were proven at the subsequent Marine Court of Enquiry into the Loss of the SS Florizel that was established on March 2, 1918.
In fact, according to Brown’s interpretation, some evidence at the inquiry pointed to Reader possibly slowing the engines, but the issue was not pursued.
“One thing that stood out clearly,” she wrote. “Captain Martin had not asserted his authority that night. Something had been amiss on his ship, but he had taken no positive measures to combat it.”
The inquiry report, made public on May 29, 1918, concluded that Martin was at fault for the ship’s demise and loss of life because he did not verify his position by sounding before changing his course from south-southwest at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24, 1918, thinking they were past Cape Race. The report also concluded Martin failed to reduce speed and verify his position by constantly sounding after the course change.
Natural forces also played a factor, the report stated, including wind and weather, sea conditions, and the rare occurrence of the reversal of the usual southwesterly polar current.
Brown stated bluntly in her book that the inquiry “threw the book at Captain William Martin.”
Martin’s master certificate was suspended for 21 months and he moved away from Newfoundland, never to return. He settled in Brooklyn, New York, and worked with Munson Lines sailing ships to ports in South America.
Brown, however, states in her book that with the inquiry over and Martin gone away, and families and the province still trying to come to grips with the disaster, rumours continued among the sailing community about what really happened to the Florizel.
One survivor seemingly carried a weight on his shoulders. For some reason, Third Officer Philip Jackman blamed himself for the disaster.
Eventually, he revealed his secret.
On the evening of Feb. 23, Jackman happened upon Third Engineer Eric Collier in the officers’ duty mess. Collier told Jackman that Reader had reduced the engine revolutions “a little.” Jackman, not wanting to overstep his position, did not tell Martin.
Brown suggests, though, that Martin likely suspected Reader had “shut in” the engine, but because of an unspoken code between captains and chief engineers who respect each other, the captain did not question it.
“Engines are still ‘slowed in’ for personal reasons and there is an unspoken agreement that no questions be asked unless the captain suspects that he has a chief engineer who is not as competent as he should be,” Brown wrote. “Then there is contention between bridge and engine room.
“If the chief is a capable man, no captain will trample the delicate boundary that separates the bridge from the engine room, and when it is the bridge that requests delay of arrival in port for personal reasons, the favour is returned. It is never entered in the logbook.”
Still, Brown points out, even if Reader had slowed the engines to allow a late arrival in Halifax, the blame for the disaster still lies with the ship’s master.
Even a century later, no one knows for certain what happened on the Florizel that night.
These days, fall and winter seas are still unmerciful along the shoreline where the Florizel remained until the waves tore it apart completely in the years following the disaster.
At Horn Head Point this week, the ocean’s roar is carried in the cold December wind. The waves break violently over the rocks where the Florizel had grounded. It’s a frightening thought of what those onboard had experienced that early, cold and dark February morning.
On the beach among the large, ocean-rounded rocks, and up against the embankment overlooking the beach, some rusted pieces of the Florizel can still be found, 100 years after being battered and pushed about by the raging sea water and winter ice.