University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Thousands Volunteer Help after the Halifax Explosion

College and Medical Students and Other Civilians Help alongside the Police and Military

Volunteers digging through wreckage.
Library and Archives Canada.

Thousands of people volunteered to help with rescue, medical care, and recovery in the days after the Halifax Explosion. Some worked nonstop for two or three days at a stretch, especially in the first days when the city was cut off from the outside.

Medical Volunteers. Volunteers began to arrive at Halifax hospitals, many of them students at Dalhousie College (now Dalhousie University). Most were young women in the Volunteer Aid Detachment (VAD) of the St. John Ambulance, a medical unit devoted to first aid and ambulance service, commonly set up in British areas around the world. It gives first aid training to community volunteers, who are then expected to report to help during emergencies. In this way, it was similar to the American Red Cross in the United States.

By 12:00 noon, only three hours after the explosion, approximately half of the VADs were already at work, along with many of their college roommates and friends, some appearing at hospitals, clinics, and emergency centers within half an hour of the explosion.

Medical students were already involved in providing healthcare across Canada because so many physicians had been called up for military service in World War I. Medical students worked beside physicians throughout the first two days as Halifax waited for relief trains with doctors and nurses to arrive.

Other Volunteers. Within the first hours after the explosion, people throughout the region began to volunteer to help in the crisis. Farmers began to drive wagons of food into the city, where volunteers began a food distribution system. Women began to set up soup kitchens to feed survivors and search teams. Others cared for children who did not need immediate medical attention. Men volunteered for search and rescue parties that spread out over the devastated areas.

The police and military began to control access to the area and guard buildings to prevent looting. Morgues were set up to hold the hundreds of the dead who were found in the searches. Young teenage boys, many of them in the military cadet corps, were organized to carry messages back and forth across the city and to deliver boxes of food throughout the damaged areas.

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