One of the last seriously injured survivors of the massive explosion that devastated Halifax in 1917 was mourned Sunday.
Eric Davidson, who will be buried Monday in Halifax, lost both his eyes to flying glass as a toddler in the blast that rocked this city, killing about 2,000 people. But friends and family remember the 94-year-old as someone who refused to be defined by his blindness.
"People would say 'I know you, you're the guy who lost his sight in the explosion,' " said his daughter Marilyn Elliott, recalling how he would cringe. "He would hate being referred to as the blind guy."
His wounds entitled him to a government pension. Only one other person injured seriously enough to be entitled to such a pension is thought still to be alive. That person has never been identified publicly.
Until his death Wednesday, Mr. Davidson was the best known local link to that terrible day, but those close to him say he was unwilling to be typecast as a victim. He danced, learned to play the piano and banjo, did repairs around the house and went to bowling nights at United Memorial Church.
He did not lack for confidence. A National Film Board short from the late 1970s shows Mr. Davidson striding to his garage and moving without hesitation between his workbench and an old vehicle he was restoring. He was a common sight on the local transit, walking his neighbourhood streets or listening to the sounds of nature at Point Pleasant Park.
"If it wasn't for the white cane, people wouldn't know," his daughter remembered. "As we said, dad just charged along."
He met Mary Zinck, who was born visually impaired, at a church bowling night. They married in 1950 and raised three children in the north end of Halifax.
By then, he was a certified mechanic, after learning in his teens to fix cars by sound and touch. Although blind, Mr. Davidson honed his skills by memorizing the instructions his siblings read him from auto manuals and practising on old vehicles in the backyard.
"He knew what not to touch," said his son Andrew Davidson. "He had it all in his head, how to take it apart and put it back together."
Mr. Davidson apprenticed at a local garage and earned his mechanic's papers. He went on to work for the city of Halifax for decades, fixing everything from snowplows to small engines.
But his true love was fiddling with old cars. Mr. Davidson was a founding member of a local antique car club and restored classics including a Studebaker, a McLaughlin Buick and several Rolls-Royces. He would relish the engine noise and wind in his hair while being ferried about in these old vehicles. And although he wasn't supposed to, he'd drive if given the chance.
"His brothers and he would go out on dirt roads and they would let dad get behind the wheel," Ms. Elliott said. "They'd coach him to go left or go right and away they'd go."
Mr. Davidson was born in Halifax in 1915, a time when the city was bustling with the war effort. One day late in 1917 brought more excitement than usual in the harbour. A French ship carrying munitions had collided with another vessel and caught fire. The Mont Blanc drifted toward shore, and unaware of the danger, thousands of people watched.
Mr. Davidson, then aged two years and seven months, was playing with a toy train on the window sill of his family home, up the hill from the harbour, watching the ship burn. His father was at work but his sister and mother were with him when the explosives aboard the Mont Blanc went off with devastating effect.
"When the explosion happened, the blast shattered their window," said Janet Kitz, who has written several books on the tragedy. "It was the glass blowing in that blinded him."
The horrible injury was not uncommon. An article in the December, 2007, issue of Canadian history magazine The Beaver noted that glass shards from the blast left hundreds with serious eye injuries. An ocularist later wrote that he saw patients with eyeballs so stuffed with debris they would "clink" as he worked. About 300 people needed one or both eyes removed.
As for Mr. Davidson's family, his mother barely managed to save her arm and his sister was scalded by a falling pan. But he was not orphaned, as were many that day. And his strong Christian faith sustained him through the years.
"He never had any regrets," said his son Andrew. "He thanked God for what he did have, not what he didn't."