Rewriting a Living Legend Researching the 1917 Explosion

March 1997 (VOL. 15, NO. 1)

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At the 1994 World Congress of Sociology in Bielefeld (Germany), Henry Quarantelli suggested that sociologists studying disasters ought to pay more attention to documents and to historical research. Research done on Canada’s worst catastrophe, the 1917 Halifax, Nova Scotia munitions ship explosion — 1,963 dead, 9,000 injured — shows that there can be scores of documents available about such incidents. These include media accounts, articles in academic journals and professional publications, and books, both nonfiction and fiction, inspired by personal experience. There are also archival records. Material on the Halifax explosion was found in Boston, Washington, D.C., Paris, London, and Oslo as well as in Canadian centers at Charlottetown, Sydney, Truro, St. John’s, Ottawa, Toronto, and Halifax. While some documents were easy to locate, other required using contacts and advertising one’s interest. Networking led to new live sources (there are still hundreds of survivors from 1917) and to documents in private hands including diaries and letters. The results provide both new insights into historical events and a test of current theories using historical data.