Fireboats spraying the burning Greenhill Park
(BC Archives E 03973)
The Greenhill Park Explosion
A Vancouver man's deathbed statement, made nearly
50 years ago and only revealed more than two decades later, throws
new light on one of the great events in the city's history.
you were here on March 6, 1945, you will remember the waterfront
explosion of the 10,000-ton freighter Greenhill Park, easily
the most spectacular and disastrous event in the port's history.
Eight longshoremen were killed in that explosion, 19 other workers
were injured, seven firemen ended up in the hospital and hundreds
of windows in downtown Vancouver, some as far west as Thurlow and
as far north as Dunsmuir, were blown out. Whole office blocks had
scarcely a pane of glass intact.
The war against Japan was in its final stages and
a lot of people thought the Japanese had begun to bomb the city.
An investigation into the explosion was conducted
by the department of transport and presided over by Mr. Justice
Sydney Smith. The names of legal personnel involved in that
investigation are familiar to any Vancouverite: Brigadier Sherwood
Lett was counsel for the ship's guards, J.V. Clyne was
counsel for six of her officers, John Stanton acted for the
International Longshoremen's Union and Walter Owen for the
National Harbors Board.
Mr. Justice Smith's report was released May 12,
1945, two months after the blast. It concluded that the explosion
had resulted from "improper stowage of combustible, dangerous
and explosive material ... and the ignition thereof by a lighted
But that was an educated guess. In such an explosion
no match, of course, would ever be found.
But back when I was writing my history column for
the Province I got a letter (it was 1980) from a Vancouver
reader who thought it was time "the true story was known."
The letter read, in part, "This was told to me in confidence
by a man I will call Joe, which was not his name, when we were both
in hospital in 1957."
Accompanying the letter was a sheet of paper headed,
"The True Story of the Fire and Explosion on the S.S. Greenhill
Park, March 6, 1945."
I read it and knew I had something. So, in my next
column, I asked the man who had sent the letter to call me. He did.
You'll have to speak up, he told me.
I'm 91, and I don't hear very well. But I remember very clearly.
It was 1957 and Joe and I happened to be in hospital together, both
awaiting major operations. He was in there for a gall bladder operation.
Well, he must have had some sort of premonition of what was going
to happen to him because he told mein confidencewhat
had happened that day on the Greenhill Park. Joe was a very quiet
man and never mingled with the other patients and I'm sure he was
always too scared to tell this story before. He seemed to feel he
could tell me.
The main cargo of the ship was sodium chlorate
but a fair amount of general cargo was loaded, too. And known supposedly
to only a few people was included some barrels of liquor. Well,
when this was stowed away, a lot of general cargo was stowed in
front of it, so it was well hidden. But Joe said it's impossible
to keep anything like that secret from longshoremen and it wasn't
long before a narrow passage was cleared back to where the liquor
One by one, the men would come down into that
hold to draw off a drink, or fill a bottle to take home in a lunch
box. The last man to do so had already had a few drinks and he couldn't
see so well down in there.
So he struck a match.
A considerable amount of the liquor had been spilled
out of the barrels onto the deck and that narrow passage was full
of fumesso, immediately, there was an explosion. That man
was killed instantly. There was only one other man in the hold at
the moment. That was Joe.
He grabbed his lunch bucket and climbed up
to the deck as fast as he could go and, as he was getting over the
rail, the first big explosion went off, blowing him right across
the dock. But it was low tide and the deck of the ship was almost
level with the dock and he was just bruised a bit. Well, he stood
up after rolling across the dock and looked down to discover he
was still holding on to his lunch box. Then he ran home. Now that
was March 6, 1945. And he never told anyone this story until we
met in hospital in 1957. He said he was too scared to do so.
For 12 years, "Joe" had kept his story
to himself. And then, because of a premonition of his fate in that
hospital, he told it to a fellow patient. A week later, Joe was
And then, in 1980, Joe's hospital friend, reading
and enjoying my Sunday Vancouver stories in The Province,
thought I might want to tell you this one.
Four explosions wracked the Greenhill Park, blew
a gaping hole in her side and killed eight longshoremen working
An investigation conducted by the department of
transport, and presided over by Justice Sydney Smith, brought
in a finding two months after the explosion that made an astonishingly
good guess at what had actually happened. I call it a guess because
no one during the investigation described what had actually happened
in Hold No. 3. That didn't happen until Joe's statement came to
Bob McColm was a 24-year-old fireman in Vancouver,
only a year on the force, and he'll never forget that daypartly
because of the explosions (which he clearly heard in his home halfway
across town at East 18th and Inverness) and partly because his wife
had had a baby that day. He was off shift but it wasn't long before
he got a phone call instructing him to get down to the waterfrontfast.
McColm didn't have a car, so that meant a ride on
When I got there, he told me for that
1980 column, the place was a hell of a mess. One of the explosions
had gone off under the ship's canteen and the dock was covered with
chocolate bars, cigarettes and candy, just all over the place. I
was working under Captain Bob Sowden, a hell of a man. He
wouldn't send any of his men any place he wouldn't go himself and
he took me and another young fellow and we actually went aboard
the ship while it was still burning. Some of the fellows from No.
1 Company had been aboard her to see if they could find anyone to
take off and they'd left, and now the ship was sitting out a couple
of hundred yards in the harbor while they got some tow-lines on
her. We were taken out to her in a small boat and we went aboard.
The water was ankle-deep on the deck in some places and it was damned
near boiling. I burned the soles right off my boots before we got
off. At one point, we walked on what we thought was a bolt of cloth.
It turned out to be a body. It was a hellish scene.
Anyway, we got a hose aboard from the fire
barge but it was a three-inch hose and the department had 2½-inch
connections, so that slowed us down a bit. They finally got the
tow-lines onto the ship and took her away to beach her, and they
let the three of us get off en route. The city fired me six months
later, he said, laughing, because my brother came back
from the air force and there was a regulation that brothers couldn't
work in the department at the same timeand he had seniority.
The tug that towed the Greenhill Park to beach it
at Siwash Rock, the R.F.M., was skippered by Capt. Harry
Jones. I was delighted to discover that Capt. Jones was still
around (in 1980), living in Vancouver, and that he had read the
article. He was 101 years old.
Sid Godber won't ever forget the day of the
Greenhill Park, either but he'd like to. Sid, who lived in
Penticton when I wrote that 1980 column, was a young reporter in
March of 1945 who, a day before the explosion, had left the Province
for a job on the Vancouver Sun. Sid, on the scene within
minutes, frantically began writing down details of the event and
interviewing eyewitnesses. Then, notebook in hand, he ran to a phoneand
called the wrong newspaper! In the excitement, he completely forgot
he'd left the Province and gave the whole story to a startled
rewrite man in their officewho was, needless to say, deeply
grateful. It took Sid a while to live that down.
This brief article can't tell the whole story of
the Greenhill Park, of course. That would take a book. In fact,
it did: The Smith investigation was 1,500 pages long. It named and
censured five officials who, it said, "contributed to the casualty"
and expressed real suspicion about the behavior of the eight longshoremen
assigned to work in Hold No. 3, where the fire began (these eight
men were not identical, in every case, to the eight who died.):
"We do not think we were told the whole story by the eight
longshoremen who were employed in No. 3 'tween decks, or at least
not by all of them.
Furthermore, we are unable to give full credence
to the evidence they did give. They all seemed to show great anxiety
to negative (sic) any idea of smoking in No. 3 'tween decks that
morning. And yet we are quite satisfied there was smoking there.
Evidence had been given that more than one longshoreman
had been smoking aboard the Greenhill Park. (The Longshoremen's
Union, incidentally, complained bitterlyand correctlythat
their men had not been told of the hazardous nature of the sodium
chlorate part of the cargo. Under a wide variety of circumstances,
this chemical is explosive.)
The report also said, . . . we think the true
explanation of the speedy spreading of the fire was that whisky
escaped from one or more of the barrels, spilled into the surrounding
combustible cargo and was ignited by a lighted match carelessly
dropped by a longshoreman in the vicinity.
And the report said that the court had come to the
conclusion that the liquor barrels had been tampered with. Reference
was made to the discovery after the explosion of lunch pails specially
soldered to carry liquids and of hot-water bottles sewn on the inside
of a jacket similar to that worn by longshoremen.
It seems to us, the report said, that
these were there for the express purpose of carrying away pilfered
In June of 1946, the Greenhill Park, repaired, sailed
away from Vancouver as the S.S. Phaex II under the new ownership
of a Greek company. By 1967, as the Lagos Michigan, she was
sold to Formosan shipbreakers for scrap.
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