A History of Disaster: Ken Smith. Nimbus, 21.95 paperback.

If someone were to ask you about noted disasters in the history of Atlantic Canada, what would you come up with? No doubt a handful would spring to mind, most of them so ingrained in our collective consciousness that all you need is a word or two to evoke the story. Westray. Swissair 111. Ocean Ranger. Arrow Air. Hurricane Juan. These are all recent, in many ways still raw in the minds of. But what about the Saxby Gale? The Burin peninsula tsunami? The Escumiac fishing fleet catastrophe?

“By what criteria are disasters measured?” asks Ken Smith in his new book, A History of Disaster. While loss of life is one criterion that always commands attention, Smith observes that socio-economic and ecological damage is just as important. Here, he’s a bit of an unnerving prophet, as he mentions Hurricane Juan’s ravaging of Halifax in 2003, and as most of us know, the fires that swept through Porters Lake recently are thought to have been fueled by deadfalls from Juan.

A History of Disaster looks at 43 different catastrophes that have hit Atlantic Canada from the eighteenth century until the present day. From the loss of the ships Violet and the Duke William when they were transporting displaced Acadians from PEI in 1758, to the still-raw wounds left by Swissair Flight 111 and Hurricane Juan, these stories span the gamut of disasters both human and naturally caused.

The obvious choices are all included here: Titanic, the Halifax Explosion, and those mentioned above, but also many that most people would not have heard of unless they have an interest in history. Smith tried to group disasters according to categories: fire, ships lost at sea, air disasters, war, mining, sealing and weather. In the course of his research, he found some fascinating details. “I was absolutely amazed at how humans could, in many cases, generate their own misfortune,” he says, and adds that some of what he learned was purely awe-inspiring. “Imagine 1600 buildings burning in 12 hours,” (the city of Saint John fire of 1877).

Smith worked as a mining assay laboratory technician for Brunswick Mining and Smelting Corporation for 37 years, retiring last year, and while he says his work didn’t initially factor into his decision to write about great Atlantic disasters, his interest certainly piqued as he conducted his research. He interviewed the superb team of Draegermen that Brunswick sent to Westray in 1992 to assist in the rescue and recovery attempts as part of his research for the book.

“I soon realized the frustration and heartbreak these men felt at not being able to bring all the victims to the surface,” he says, adding that although they faced deadly peril, they would do it again in an instant should another such situation happen. “Researching and writing about the Nova Scotia coal mine disasters definitely was my most heart wrenching experience,” he says, with the sealing disasters off the Newfoundland coast coming in a close second.

There are several things about this book that I found especially compelling. One is, of course, the stories I had never heard of before, or knew of only fleetingly from references in Maritime history books or in novels situated in this region. Smith is a fine researcher and writes compellingly, drawing the reader into the fear and despair that would have been felt by those involved in the stories. In one sentence, he sums up the terror felt by those who experienced the Miramichi fire of 1825: “Many burst into flames as they ran, while others simply dropped to their knees in wide-eyed terror and prayed, believing that the end of the world had come.”

In an interview, Smith says that he hopes the book would serve as a history lesson for people of all ages, especially our youth, who, he feels “desperately need more input dealing with past events.” He also hopes that people will learn more about those who are ancestors to many of us, both to understand more of the dangerous jobs of the past (and present) but also more about community. He points out that communities such as those blasted by the Saxby Gale or the Burin tsunami, “bonded by work, blood and danger, exuded a closeness in spirit and moral integrity that is a rare commodity in our modern world.”

And as with any work of history, we forget the lessons of the past at our peril.