The day Mississauga became a ghost town

Since I’m on a Gordon Lightfoot kick today, I might as well include another apt song of his to introduce this entry and set the emotional tone:

Thirty years ago today, the local nighttime news was filled with some of the scariest scenes I’ve ever watched. A Canadian Pacific train, number 54, en route from London, Ontario, had derailed near Mississauga, just west of Toronto. Several tankers were on fire. The contents were styrene, toluene, propane, caustic soda, and chlorine–any one of which could cause a nasty explosion if set alight.

The cause of the Mississauga wreck was seemingly small and insignificant, but it’s something a trainman overlooks only at his peril. A wheel box on the 33rd car in the 106-car train had run dry of oil and overheated. Locals seeing it pass thought the train had already caught fire; the hot box was smoking and giving off bright orange sparks. As the train passed the level crossing at Burnhamthorpe Road, the axle broke and the wheels went flying, tracing a fiery arc in the air. The undercarriage of the crippled car then sagged toward the rails, eventually snagging on a switch and collapsing near Mavis Road.

The chemical tankers behind the damaged car were ruptured as they slammed into one another and then fell off the tracks. A column of flame more than a kilometre and a half high erupted into the night sky. People from as far away as 100 km could see the fire burning. Towns as far as 10 km away felt the shock waves from the blast.

In the caboose, conductor Ted Nichol was thrown against a stanchion. He looked out the window, saw the orange-and-white column of flame ahead of him, made a quick attempt to contact Pruss by walkie-talkie, then leapt out of the still-moving train, CP 54’s cargo manifest in hand, and ran for his life.

Then CP 54 came to a grinding halt, followed by a second explosion.

Brakeman Larry Krupa, 27 years old at the time, took a life-saving action: he got dangerously close to the fire in order to release the brake-line couplers of the 27th car, which was the last one standing–thus freeing the front end of the train, and saving his life and that of the engineer–his own father-in-law, Keith Pruss, 52.

Then came a third explosion, so massive that it was seen as far away as Kingston, Ontario–and Buffalo, New York. Pruss and Krupa got the unharmed remainder of the train–27 cars and three locomotives–out of the area as fast as they could. The shock wave knocked down everyone standing within a kilometre radius of the scene.

Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion was 58 at the time. She got little rest that night as she made sure the first few thousand evacuees were safe in their designated disaster relief centres, then drove to Mavis Rd. to see how the fire crews’ work was progressing.

Meanwhile, the first police officer at the scene, Constable Doug Rielly, who had stopped his cruiser just 400 feet away from burning cars, was trying to disperse a crowd of about 300 people who had gathered to watch, oblivious to the danger. The gawkers were none too happy to see the uniformed party-pooper, and came at him with threats and cursing. Rielly called for reinforcements. That got rid of the gawkers.

And it was a good thing, too. As Carsten Stroud wrote in “City in Flight”, published in the March 1980 edition of the Canadian Reader’s Digest, all of them could have ended up cremated on the spot:

Of all the disaster workers, the firemen were exposed to the greatest risk for the longest time. Struggling with bulky hoses each time they approached the fire to change the streams, they knew that sudden, violent death was at their elbow. They had all seen a training film of propane tanker fires in the United States. In one, a tanker explosion killed a camera crew 2500 yards away. These Mississauga firemen were less than 500 feet from a tangle of propane tankers already ablaze.

Emphasis as in original.

Compounding the danger of the propane fire was the tanker loaded with 90 tons of liquid chlorine “somewhere in the middle of the inferno at the Mavis Road crossing.” Writes Stroud: “If it ruptured or blew up, an enormous spill of chlorine gas would bring agonizing death to everyone it enveloped.” It was an extra layer of fear on top of what the firefighters were already experiencing as they strove to bring the propane blaze under control.

Luckily, the city had been prepared for just such an emergency. Mississauga did not even exist on the map until 1974, when three smaller towns, which had remained separate for over a century, were amalgamated. Any residual separatist sentiment was melted that night in the heat of the fire. Hazel McCallion, elected as mayor in 1978, had every right to feel proud of how her city was coming together in the hours and days of adversity. As an ever-expanding series of concentric circles were evacuated around the disaster zone, she oversaw the movement of 225,000 people. Not one of them was harmed–save the mayor, who sprained an ankle in all the bustling, and kept hobbling on from duty to duty regardless.

Eventually the fire crews brought the propane fires down. But the cars were still too hot to handle, and the chlorine tanker was leaking. Several firefighters inadvertently inhaled some of the gas; one, John Engel, then 33, had to be hospitalized. The danger was far from over.

Writes Stroud,

As it turned out, only about 20 tons [of the liquid chlorine] remained. Experts concluded that over 70 tons had indeed leaked out in the first six hours after the derailment. Normally, it would have moved across the ground and collected in valleys and hollows; there, it would have turned into deadly gas. Instead, because of the propane explosions around the tanker, hot air currents had propelled the chlorine thousands of feet high. This had saved Mississauga.

Given that chlorine was one of the most feared gases of World War I trench warfare, the danger Stroud describes would have been horrific if a comprehensive evacuation plan had not been in place. For nearly a quarter-million citizens to be moved out of harm’s way is quite the logistical achievement, and it went off without a hitch. Luck was also with Mississauga in that the explosions carried off most of the chlorine to a level where it could do no harm, and would eventually disperse in the air.

It was five days before the authorities gave the all-clear, and the people of Mississauga could finally return to their homes.

Mississauga has become a textbook case in how to handle large-scale emergency evacuations. Until Hurricane Katrina flattened New Orleans in 2005, in fact, it was the single largest peacetime evacuation in North American history. Hazel McCallion is now 88, and still mayor of Mississauga, never having been defeated at the polls. Her nickname is “Hurricane Hazel”, and she remains a feisty old bird–a real pistol. I have a hunch she won’t leave City Hall until they carry her out, feet first. Fortunately, she is extremely popular–her popularity cemented, no doubt, by the terrific way she handled the disaster!

And yes, the explosion was visible from my own town, too–it lit up the night sky, though none of us could see the column of flame. It was the talk of my middle school for several weeks.

My own favorite memory of the whole shebang, however, has got to be this weird little New Wave song by Eva Everything and The Gas, recorded in a studio in Toronto–ap
tly named “Great Shakes” because of its proximity to the railroad tracks. It’s very rare and I couldn’t find any video of it, but I remember it well from the news footage at the time. While looking for it, I found out that Eva Everything has since become a science writer and has a quirky, fun-looking book out. She also has a Facebook page, here. It would be fun to see her wacky song YouTubed, if anyone can find it and the news footage of the explosion.

Meanwhile, because I too now live right next to some CP tracks (in a house I find myself often referring to as “Great Shakes”!), I find myself watching the trains a lot. And on the neighboring CN tracks, too. Lots of tankers go by on the rails every day; hundreds, maybe thousands per week. Yet, strangely, I’m never afraid, even though I know full well what might happen. Maybe it’s because the Mississauga disaster has made everyone more vigilant since then–and no one more so than the trainmen who, like Keith Pruss and Larry Krupa, have to handle vast tonnages of dangerous materials every working day. Who knows how many times they’ve gone to bat against corporate execs who are too often tempted to cut corners–and who try to influence parliamentarians into allowing safety lapses for profit’s sake? The trainmen are the unsung heroes of our railroads, and I hope they never let up.

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2 Responses to The day Mississauga became a ghost town

  1. I had only just managed to get off my folk music kick for the month, and you drag me back kicking and screaming to some of the very best. 😀
    Two very well written pieces from you, happy to be lurking at your blog.
    Cheers.

  2. Thanks! Glad to have you aboard…

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