Canada

MISSISSAUGA NIGHTMARE

Warren Gerard November 26 1979
Canada

MISSISSAUGA NIGHTMARE

Warren Gerard November 26 1979

MISSISSAUGA NIGHTMARE

Canada

Warren Gerard

The nightmare was finally over. The terrifying threat that Mississauga would be engulfed by deadly, suffocating chlorine gas had ended. The sprawling, bedroom community on Metropolitan Toronto’s western border had been pronounced safe for occupancy.

That word came down, joyfully, in the early evening last Friday. An emergency crew had succeeded at last in draining almost all the remaining liquid chlorine from a tanker that was ruptured in a hellish train crash almost a week earlier.

The displaced thousands of Mississauga could resume their normal lives.

For most of the six days and five nights of the crisis, the southern third of Mississauga was an empty, crippled community. The evacuation began in the early hours of Sunday, Remembrance Day, and by the end of that day 220,000 residents of Mississauga and another 3,000 from the adjacent community of Oakville had fled their homes.

They sought shelter with friends, relatives, in motels, hotels, and at evacuation centres. They had been roused from their beds, ordered from their homes, told to abandon their jobs, businesses, their very way of life. Unconvinced of the enormity of the threat to their safety, some didn’t leave willingly. The police left them no choice. “Get the hell out of here,” was the way at least one officer was putting it. Mississauga was closed.

It was a calm, orderly exodus, involving twice the population of Prince Edward Island or four times as many who

fled the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania last March. And on Saturday, the last 33,000 displaced residents, those whose homes were nearest to the crash site, returned

home. It was an incredible week for them, a week of anxiety, fear, frustration and, in the end, anger.

It all began at 11:56 p.m. on Nov. 10, at the railway tracks intersecting a road

called Mavis. A split second earlier, John and Lynne Riddel heard something crash through their backyard only 50 feet from the tracks. It was a red-hot pair of railway car wheels. “My father-in-law next door came over with a garden hose to put it out,” Riddel said. “It was obviously what led to the derailment.”

Ron and Kay Dabor were sitting in their Lincoln Continental at the intersection. “My wife said, ‘It’s a short train,’ ” Dabor recalls. “Then we noticed it wasn’t short. We thought there was a flare at the end. One of the cars had derailed.” Dabor tried to back up but couldn’t. Then he tried to turn the car around but drove it into a ditch. At that point the sky suddenly turned crimson.

“We ran like blazes with this incredible billowing fire chasing us,” he said. “We ran up the road threequarters of a mile and we were all by ourselves.” Mrs. Dabor had left her $10,000 fur coat inside the car. The train was on fire but the flames seemed to be subsiding. They started to make their way back to the car. Then a policeman came along and told them to run. “There was a tremendous I explosion,” said Dabor. “We S both fell to our knees.”

* A few blocks away at the ^ Fairview Road station, a ° firefighter heard the explosion and looked out the window. The sky had turned red with flames. “I knew right off it’s a biggie,” he recalls. There was no panic. This is an experienced fire department. It has handled air disasters at Toronto International Airport and a mammoth gas explosion a decade ago.

The news came quickly. A 106-car freight train had derailed. It was carrying explosive and poisonous chemicals. Tankers continued to explode. “I thought it might be a spaceship from another galaxy,” said 13-year-old Wayne Zimmer, whose family lives close to the crash site.

Immediately after the train derailed, Larry Krupa, a 27-year-old trainman (see box), ran like a madman into a “great ball of fire” and uncoupled the train where it had derailed. He got back to the locomotive and, coincidentally, his father-in-law, Keith Pruss, a 51year-old CP engineer, got the rest of the train “the hell out of there.”

Unknown at the time, lying on the track, surrounded by propane-fed flames, was a tanker filled with 90 tons of liquid chlorine, the chemical that makes swimming pools smell (and safer) and the deadly gas that killed thousands on the battlefields of France in the First World War.

But the pungent odor soon told the story. Ontario environment ministry scientists estimated that 70 per cent of the greenish-yellow gas in the tanker was carried up about 4,000 feet into the atmosphere by the tremendous heat and updraft at the time of the propane tanker explosions. Then it fell back to earth in minute concentrations over at least a 60-mile area. The scientists said it would harm no one and there were no reports that it had. But near the scene the suffocating gas quickly caused coughing, gagging and irritation of the eyes. Inhalation of large doses can damage lung tissue, cause pulmonary edema, bronchitis, emphysema and, in extreme cases, death by suffocation.

As soon as Doug Burrows, the 47year-old police chief of Mississauga, found out what he was dealing with, he ordered the evacuation of homes near the crash site. The events that followed were unprecedented in North America. And through it all, not one life was lost. Calm was maintained. There was a quietness about what happened. It all seemed curiously Canadian.

Every available firefighter and policeman in the city was called in. Calls for help went out to the Metropolitan Toronto police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police. Extra men and equipment were sent to the scene by fire departments in surrounding municipalities and from the nearby airport, but through it all Mississauga firemen were able to control the nightmare blaze alone.

The evacuated area quickly expanded.

Police went from door to door in the early hours of Sunday morning, Remembrance Day, waking up residents, telling them to leave. They were directed to “safe” rescue areas, one of them being the massive shopping centre, Square One. But the thousands who had gathered there during the night were told to move again. The shifting wind was sending the leaking chlorine their way.

Maclean's Assistant Editor James Fleming recalls that the blast shook the 20-storey apartment building where he and his wife, Chris, and their baby, Sarah, live. They did nothing until morning. But after learning of the night’s events, Fleming called the police. He was told that he lived on the fringe of the evacuated area. The police officer sounded nervous.

“I didn’t like the sound of his voice,”

Fleming recalls, “so we threw some clothes into a suitcase and went to my parents’ home in Oakville. We could smell the chlorine.” About 11:30 that night, police told them to leave that part of Oakville, which neighbors Mississauga on the west. This time they went north to Collingwood.

It was that way for many of Mississauga’s residents. They went to stay with relatives, friends, at motels, ho-

tels, at the various “safe” centres. Three hospitals were evacuated and more than 1,000 patients were relocated in other hospitals. Hundreds of ambulances were involved in the moves. Some patients were still attached to intravenous tubes. One baby was only V-k hours old. Elders were moved from senior citizens’ homes. In all, an estimated 220,000 residents had left the city by Sunday night. The dormitory city was deserted. It was eerie, strange, something more believable between the covers of Neville Shute’s On the Beach than on the streets of Mississauga.

Yet some stayed. Willa Wilson, a small, grey-haired woman, said she and the other four members of her family heard the loudspeakers warning them to leave. Why didn’t they? “I don’t know,” she said. “We just decided to stay. I didn’t feel it was that important.”

Russ (Lucky) Harris, a 69-year-old retired transport driver, was on his way for some salmon fishing in the Credit River early Sunday when he was stopped by a policeman. “The cop said, ‘You’re not going to do any fishing today. Get the hell out of here,’ ” he recalls. But as he drove his camper out of Mississauga he realized he had forgotten medicine for his heart condition. He decided to return and was stopped again. “The cop told me I should park the camper. I asked him where and he said, ‘Follow me.’ ” Harris spent the

night outside the police station. The next morning he awoke to a knock on the door of his camper. “I opened it and there was a cop standing with a plate of bacon and eggs. Beautiful.”

Animal lovers fretted about their pets and, in some cases, their carpets as the evacuation became prolonged. On Tuesday, Red Cross officials were helping a worried resident rescue his starving cat. But when the volunteers went to the owner’s home they found that the cat had fixed his own meal—its former feathered housemate, a canary. By midweek, however, the Ontario Humane Society had moved in to feed an estimated 10,000 dogs, cats, gerbils and other creatures in the city.

As the week slowly wore on, it became a waiting game. The problem was stopping the leak in the ruptured chlorine tanker. It couldn’t be sealed off entirely, but the small quantity of gas that was still escaping on Tuesday prompted Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry, the boss at the scene, to announce that 150,000 evacuees could return home. The threat of further fires was ended Wednesday when cleanup crews drained the last of the explosive propane from other wrecked cars. But on the same day, there were two eruptions from the chlorine tanker which sent plumes of poisonous gas high into the air, knocking one worker off his feet.

The gas cloud hung over the scene and the wind eventually blew it south over Lake Ontario. The smell of it lingered in Mississauga all that night.

The evacuation centres began to close. CP Rail was paying hotel bills, presumably getting a reduced rate for 350 evacuees at its own Royal York Hotel in downtown Toronto where the management was providing “clean new underwear to the ladies.” After all, the hotel was celebrating its 50th birthday. Yet by Thursday, the remaining evacuees were losing their patience with the emergency—even though eight firemen were overcome by a lingering fog of chlorine gas. Some made up flimsy excuses to get past police. By Friday many were lining up at the barricades awaiting the word to go home.

It was all over by 8 p.m. Friday when the all-clear was given for the remaining 30,000 or more residents to return to their homes. Overnight and during the morning, most of the chemical had been drained from the tanker.

The concerns for most residents were lost time and lost money. It was estimated that at least $6.6 million on retail sales, manufactured and shipped goods and professional services was lost each day of the emergency. Some lawyers believe that individual claims could reach $50 million.

This week claim forms were available at all major banks in the city. CP is asking for receipts.