HALIFAX — The number of survivors of the Halifax Explosion who regularly attend the annual remembrance celebrations is dwindling quickly, prompting historians to urge relatives to record their memories and stories before they fade forever.
On Sunday morning, no survivors were strong enough to brave the harsh winds and wet snow that lashed Halifax during a ceremony at Fort Needham Memorial Park.
Later in the day, six survivors gathered indoors at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, where they offered childhood recollections of a day that forever changed their lives —and their city.
More than 1,900 people lost their lives on Dec. 6, 1917, and 9,000 were injured from fires, flying glass and collapsing beams when a French munitions ship loaded with explosives collided with another vessel, catching fire and exploding.
Blair Beed, an author who has written about the explosion, said there are probably less than 100 survivors in the north end of Halifax.
He said all are in their 90s or over 100 years old.
“We’re on the verge of losing their stories…Museums are still trying to gather the artifacts and personal references. Each person has a little piece of the quilt of the story,” he said.
“If you’re a family member, don’t wait another day. Get the story now from grandmothers and grandfathers.”
Cecilia Coolen, 92, said she was just a 10-day-old baby when the blast tore through her house.
“I’m getting older now, that’s why I came today. Some days I don’t feel like I’ll live to the next ceremony,” she said, chuckling.
She recalled how as her exhausted mother decided to send her to live with her aunt on a temporary basis.
Her birth mother had four other children to care for, including an 11-month-old infant. She later asked her sister to adopt Cecilia.
Coolen learned the identity of her birth mother 50 years later.
“I always had a feeling I didn’t belong where I was,” she said.
Coolen said the gatherings of the survivors are growing rarer and smaller.
“After the last survivors go, they should have something in remembrance of the last one,” she said.
After listening to the recollections on Sunday, Jim Simpson, 42, said he was feeling a surge of grief for friends he’d lost.
Simpson has been recording the stories of survivors for over two decades. Two years ago, he organized a memorial service for a little girl who died in the explosion.
“There’s going to be a day when there’s almost nobody left,” he said.
“I felt today that I’m by myself now. They’ve all left me.”
Two survivors he was close to died in the last two years.
Still, the wildlife biologist — who has made recording the history of the explosion a personal passion — said that he will continue to help organize the gatherings.
In 1999, he promised a survivor who was dying, Bill Orr, that he’d keep up the research and remembrance ceremonies.
He said it gives him deep insights into life and its value.
“One second can pass, and you can lose everything,” he said. “It was so very, very hard.”