WATERVILLE, NS - Only four years old on that fateful day 100 years ago, she only knew what she was told about the Halifax Explosion although her scars served as a life-long reminder.
The Halifax Explosion occurred on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, following a collision between the SS Mont-Blanc, which had a cargo of explosives, and the SS Imo in the Narrows, a straight connecting the Halifax Harbour and Bedford Basin. The explosion of the Mont-Blanc resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths and 9,000 injuries. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
Born in New Minas in 1913, Elsie (Brown) Benedict was upstairs with her mother and siblings in their Duffus Street, Halifax, home watching the boat burning from a window when the explosion occurred. All of them ended up in the cellar, the house like so many others flattened. Her sister Janie was killed instantly.
Her father, Allen, was out delivering freight by horse and wagon and headed home following the explosion. He didn’t recognize his son Cecil and friend Reid Sweet when they spotted him and yelled. The boys were blackened with soot and debris.
Elsie’s father temporarily moved the family into what was left of an old shanty so they would have some shelter from the cold and snowstorm that followed. He was told they must leave but he stood his ground and they stayed.
Elsie, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 94, said when she told her story that she only remembered being in the Victoria General following the blast. Her mother, Laura May, later succumbed to her injuries and another brother, David, lost his life as a result of the blast. They were still finding bodies and body parts in ditches the following spring.
A century later, Elsie’s nephew, Bob Rockwell of Waterville, and his wife Sharon fondly recall Elsie. Bob considered her his favourite aunt. She was the first to hold him when he was born.
“She was just special,” Bob said. “She loved everybody and everybody loved her.”
The explosion left a gapping scar across Elsie’s forehead. Her right eye was injured and she had wounds on her arms and legs. The scar always bothered Elsie and small pieces of wood embedded in her flesh would sometimes surface and have to be removed.
Bob said his aunt didn’t talk about the explosion much but sometimes spoke about her scar. Sharon said Elsie never dwelled on it much.
Dr. Weston Oyler of Boston, Massachusetts, treated Elsie in hospital following the explosion. After he returned home, he sent her $10, a lot of money in those days. Elsie still had it in the bank when she was married.
“Her doctor really took to her when he was treating her,” Bob said. “She was a favourite and he wrote to her right up until he died. Then his wife took it up and wrote back and forth to her. When she died, the daughter took it up.”
The doctor and his family even returned to Nova Scotia to visit Elsie and her family on occasion. She lived in Mount Uniacke with her husband and son. Bob said he thinks the continued friendship and support the family showed his aunt was quite amazing.
Bob recalls the meals she used to seemingly whip up out of nowhere whenever anyone went to visit her. He said she was a wonderful cook.
Sharon said the generosity and compassion shown by the people of Boston in particular was wonderful and is something we should always remember. Bob said it’s great how people tend to come together in times of tragedy.
Nova Scotia still sends a giant Christmas tree to Boston every year as a show of gratitude for the outpouring of support shown following the explosion. Sharon said this fills her with a sense of pride.
The Rockwell’s hope that people will take the time to reflect on the magnitude of the disaster on the 100th anniversary.