SS Imo

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For other ships of the same name, see SS Runic.
Halifax explosion - Imo.jpg
Norwegian steamship SS Imo beached on the Dartmouth shore after the Halifax Explosion, 1917. (NSARM / negative: N-138)
  • Runic (1889–1895)
  • Tampican (1895–1912)
  • Imo (1912–1920)
  • Guvernøren (1917–1921)
Builder: Harland and Wolff, Belfast
Yard number: 211
Launched: 1 January 1889
Completed: 16 February 1889
Maiden voyage: 21 February 1889
Fate: Wrecked on 30 November 1921
General characteristics
Type: Cargo liner, whaling ship
  • 5,043 GRT
  • 3,405 under deck
  • 3,161 NRT
Length: 430 ft 7 in (131.24 m)
Beam: 45 ft 2 in (13.77 m)
Depth: 30 ft 3 in (9.22 m)
Propulsion: Triple expansion steam engine, 424 ihp (316 kW)
Speed: 12 knots (22 km/h; 14 mph)
Crew: 40

SS Imo[1] was a steamship that served in passenger and freight trades and later as a whaling supply ship. Christened SS Runic, she was bought, sold and renamed numerous times during her career. In 1917, Imo was under Norwegian registry chartered by the Belgian Relief Commission to bring supplies to war-ravaged Europe. On 6 December, she was involved in a collision in Halifax Harbour with a French munitions vessel, SS Mont-Blanc, laden with a full cargo of highly volatile explosives. The resultant fire aboard Mont Blanc caused a catastrophic explosion that levelled the Richmond District in the North End of the city. (see Halifax Explosion). Though Imo‍ '​s superstructure was severely damaged by the blast, the ship was repaired and returned to service in 1918. She was named Guvernøren in 1920[2] but ran aground off the Falkland Islands on 30 November 1921 and abandoned on 3 December.

Early career[edit]

Launched in 1889 as Runic for the White Star Line, she served as a cargo liner, designed to carry 12 passengers in addition to freight, mostly livestock. She was sold in May 1895 to the West Indies and Pacific Steamship Line and renamed Tampican. Tampican was transferred with the rest of the company's fleet to Frederick Leyland & Co. on 31 December 1899. She was sold in 1912 to H. E. Moss & Co., of Liverpool, but was almost immediately resold, to the Norwegian whaling firm, the Southern Pacific Whaling Company to serve as a whaling supply ship. Renamed Imo by the new owners, she operated out of the port of Christiana, Norway.[3]

Halifax Explosion[edit]

In 1917 Imo sailed as a charter for the Belgian Relief Commission. Being neutral, SS Imo sailed alone. Painted on her side were the words "Belgian Relief" to protect her from German submarines.[4] Imo was sailing in ballast (empty) en route to New York to load relief supplies. The ship arrived in Halifax on 3 December for neutral inspection and spent two days in Bedford Basin awaiting refuelling supplies.[5] Though given clearance to leave the port on 5 December, Imo‍ '​s departure was delayed as her coal load did not arrive until late that afternoon. The loading of fuel was not completed until after the anti-submarine nets had been raised for the night. Therefore, the vessel could not weigh anchor until the next morning.[6][7]

Imo had a crew of 39 men commanded by Captain Haakon From. At 430 feet in length but only 45 feet wide Imo was long and narrow. Because she was in ballast (without cargo), her propeller and rudder were nearly out of the water, making her difficult to steer. She was powered by a triple expansion steam engine with a single 20-foot right-hand propeller able to make 60 revolutions per minute. Due to this propeller, the ship had a "transverse thrust", i.e. while making headway she veered to the left, in reverse she swung to the right. Under these conditions, Imo was at a disadvantage in navigating in tight quarters. "Due to the combined effect of transverse thrust and the length, and depth of SS Imo's hull, and its keel, she was difficult to maneuver".[4]

Imo was granted clearance to leave Bedford Basin by signals from the guard ship HMCS Acadia at approximately 7:30 am on the morning of 6 December,[8] with Pilot William Hayes aboard. The ship entered the Narrows well above the harbour's speed limit in an attempt to make up for the delay experienced in loading her cargo.[5] Imo met an American tramp steamer, SS Clara, being piloted up the wrong (western) side of the harbour.[9] The pilots agreed to pass starboard to starboard.[10] Soon afterwards, though, Imo was forced to head even further towards the Dartmouth shore after passing the tugboat Stella Maris, which was travelling up the harbour to Bedford Basin near mid-channel. Horatio Brannen, the captain of Stella Maris, saw Imo approaching at excessive speed and ordered his ship closer to the western shore to avoid an accident.[11][12][13]

This incident forced Imo even further over towards the Dartmouth side of the harbour into the path of the on-coming SS Mont-Blanc a French cargo ship, fully loaded with a highly volatile cargo of wartime explosives. Unable to ground his ship for fear of a shock that would set off his explosive cargo, Pilot Francis Mackey ordered Mont-Blanc to steer hard to port (starboard helm) and crossed the Norwegian ship's bows in a last-second bid to avoid a collision. The two ships were almost parallel to each other, when Imo suddenly sent out three signal blasts, indicating the ship was reversing its engines. The combination of the cargoless ship's height in the water and the transverse thrust of her right-hand propellor caused the ship's head to swing into Mont-Blanc.[14][5] At 8:45 am, the two ships collided at slow speed in "The Narrows" of Halifax Harbour.[15]

While the damage to Mont Blanc was not severe, it toppled barrels that broke open and flooded the deck with benzol that quickly flowed into the hold. As Imo‍ '​s engines kicked in, she quickly disengaged, which created sparks inside Mont-Blanc‍ '​s hull. These ignited the vapours from the benzol. A fire started at the water line and travelled quickly up the side of the ship as the benzol spewed out from crushed drums on Mont-Blanc‍ '​s decks. The fire quickly became uncontrollable. Surrounded by thick black smoke, and fearing she would explode almost immediately, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship.[16][15] At 9:04:35 am, the out-of-control fire aboard Mont-Blanc finally set off her highly explosive cargo.[17] The ship was completely blown apart and a powerful blast wave radiated away from the explosion at more than 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) per second. Temperatures of 5,000 °C (9,030 °F) and pressures of thousands of atmospheres accompanied the moment of detonation at the centre of the explosion.[18][5]

Approximately 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings, and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured.[19] The explosion wrecked the upper decks of Imo. Three of the four open bridge personnel were killed: Captain From, Pilot William Hayes and R. Albert Ingvald Iverson, the first officer. John Johansen, the helmsman, was severely injured but survived. Four more crew members were also killed: Harold Iverson (crewman), Oscar Kallstrom (fireman), Johannes C. Kersenboom (carpenter) and Gustav Petersen (boatswain).[20] The blast and the tsunami that followed threw the ship ashore on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour.[21]

The Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry carried out the official investigation into the cause of the collision. Charles Jost Burchell, a prominent Halifax lawyer, represented Imo's owners as he did in the lengthy civil litigation. The inquiry initially held Imo's crew blameless, and put the entire responsibility for the collision on the Mont-Blanc. However following appeals to the Supreme Court of Canada in May 1919 and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (22 March 1920), both ships were found to have made navigational errors and were found equally at fault for the collision and its consequences.[22][23]

Later career[edit]

Imo was repaired after the explosion and returned to service. Renamed Guvernøren ("The Governor") in 1920, she served as a whale oil tanker until 30 November 1921, when the captain had a celebratory drink too much, fell down drunk, and nobody was at wheel, and the ship crashed onto the rocks off the Falkland Islands.[3] It was grounded on rocks at Cow Bay two miles off Cape Carysfort approximately 20 miles from Port Stanley on East Falkland.[24] No crew were lost. Salvage attempts were halted on 3 December and the ship was abandoned to the sea.[25]

Stamp and commemoration[edit]

In 2005, a stamp was issued by the Falkland Islands, showing Imo.[26] The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia has an exhibit about the ship's role in the Halifax Explosion, which also displays some fittings from Imo including a dog collar from the ship's mascot.


  1. ^ The ship had been named with the initials – JMO – after the senior owner of the company, Johan Martin Osmundsen (aka Jurgens M. Osmond), but people started calling her Imo and the name stuck. Source: Methods of Disaster Research by Robert A. Stallings (International Research Committee on Disasters ©2002), pp. 281–282.
  2. ^ [1] The Ships List.
  3. ^ a b "Imo". Ships of the Halifax Explosion. Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. 18 February 2009. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  4. ^ a b "The Collision". The Halifax Explosion. Retrieved 17 July 2010. 
  5. ^ a b c d Lilley, Steve (January 2013). "Kiloton killer". System Failure Case Study (NASA) 7 (1). 
  6. ^ Kitz & Payzant 2006, p. 16.
  7. ^ Flemming 2004, p. 18.
  8. ^ Conlin, Dan (6 December 2013). "The Harbour Remembers the Halifax Explosion". Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. 
  9. ^ Flemming 2004, p. 23.
  10. ^ Mac Donald 2005, pp. 30–31.
  11. ^ Flemming 2004, p. 24.
  12. ^ Kitz & Payzant 2006, p. 17.
  13. ^ Mac Donald 2005, p. 33.
  14. ^ Mac Donald 2005, pp. 40–41.
  15. ^ a b Flemming 2004, p. 25.
  16. ^ Kitz 1989, p. 19.
  17. ^ Mac Donald 2005, p. 58.
  18. ^ Ruffman & Howell 1994, p. 277.
  19. ^ CBC – Halifax Explosion 1917
  20. ^ "Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book (Nova Scotia Archives website)
  21. ^ "Imo-1917", On the Rocks Shipwreck Database, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
  22. ^ Joel Zemel (2012), Chapters 7–16, pp. 88–277.
  23. ^ "Halifax Explosion Infosheet", Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax
  24. ^ The Falkland Island History by Roger Lorton (2012)
  25. ^ "Falkland Stamps!" (PDF). Falklands Philatelic Bureau. Retrieved 23 July 2010. 
  26. ^ aukepalmhof (24 November 2009). "IMO/GUVERNOREN and MONT BLANC". Retrieved 23 July 2010. 


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