A short, animated film called “The Flying Sailor” has been nominated for an Academy Award. It tells the story of Charles Mayers, a British sailor who was in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 6, 1917, the day that a cargo ship full of volatile materials intended for the war effort collided with another ship and exploded after bursting into flames. The force of the blast leveled parts of the town, bringing misery and destruction to Halifax and its surroundings. 1,782 people were killed and approximately 9,000 others were injured.
That morning, Mayers, whose ship was in drydock not far away, had walked along the docks toward the site of the collision of the SS Mont Blanc, the French freighter with the explosives, and the SS Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered by the Commission for Relief in Belgium to pick up a cargo of supplies in New York. Mayers could see a fire and was curious to find out what was happening. When he heard a preliminary explosion, he started running back towards his ship, the Middleham Castle, which was preparing to leave the drydock. At approximately 9:04 am, there was a tremendous explosion, unsurpassed until the bombing of Hiroshima.
Mayers was struck by the blast and could feel that he was rising into the air and passing (and being passed) by flying debris. He was carried about half a kilometer to a nearby hill, Fort Needham. He had gunpowder marks on his body, but despite being disoriented, he was otherwise okay, though his clothes had been torn off by the blast. Mayers said later, “I was wet when I came down. I had no clothes on when I came to, except my boots. There was a little girl near me and I asked her where we were. She was crying and said she did not know where we were. Some men gave me a pair of trousers and a rubber coat.”
Charles John Mayers
Artist's impression of Anders Sparrfelt's flight
(from Jim Hamilton's upcoming book, Falling: Amazing Survival Stories)
Mayers remained in Halifax long enough to testify at the inquiry about the explosion. Twenty-one at the time, Mayers married in 1920 and ultimately returned to his hometown of Liverpool where he became a driver on the River Mersey. The Halifax man who sheltered him after the blast became a lifelong friend. His name was W.T. Hart. The Middleham Castle survived the explosion with some damage, and sailed on, only to be sunk by a German torpedo in 1941.
The long-fall survival stories that I have collected almost exclusively happen in some kind of aviation incident. Occasionally, someone will survive a jump from a skyscraper or a fall over a cliff, but it is rare for the participant to have started their trip at ground- or sea level.
I know of only one other situation that is similar to Mayers’. A seventeenth-century Swedish Army major named Anders Sparrfelt was on the ship, Stora Kronan, when it exploded. He was catapulted over two enemy ships and landed safely in the sails of the Swedish frigate Draken. This is the earliest of the more than three hundred long-fall survival incidents that I have collected. The next one in my database did not occur until more than two hundred years later.