‘You just had to watch them burn’

MICHAEL POSNER February 17 1986

‘You just had to watch them burn’

MICHAEL POSNER February 17 1986

‘You just had to watch them burn’

Eastbound for Winnipeg, the sleek silver Skeena, a Via Rail Super-continental, whistled through the snow-covered Alberta foothills at almost 115 km an hour. It was shortly after 8:30 a.m. last Saturday and most of the train’s passengers were either sitting down to breakfast in the glass-domed dining car or still sleeping. Suddenly, without warning, disaster: the

nine-car Supercontinental slammed head-on into westbound CN Rail freight train No. 413, carrying highly combustible sulphur and diesel fuel. The impact ignited a searing fireball that roared down the track, leaving a twisted mass of crushed bodies, charred metal—and one of the highest casualty tolls in Canadian rail history: an estimated 33 dead and more than 90 injured. Said Josi Hummel, 31, one of the survivors: ‘T have never seen people suffer like that.”

In sub-zero temperatures, as charcoal clouds of acrid diesel fuel smouldered for hours above the wreckage, emergency crews ferried survivors to hospitals in nearby Hinton, Alta., and in Edmonton, 280 km east of the crash site. The collision occurred on a curved stretch of

single track 16 km east of Hinton. Only 76 m east of the site the track forked into two lines—and it was there, CN officials said, that the 114-car freight train should have waited for the Supercontinental to clear the main line. “The freight train should not have proceeded

down that track,” said CN Rail spokesman Alex Rennie. “It should have stopped before the single-track section.” The key question for investigators: whether the freight’s failure to stop was the result of a signal malfunction or human error.

According to Dr. Derrick Pounder, deputy chief medical examiner for Al-

berta, many of the victims died not from the crash itself but in the ensuing fire as the freight train’s diesel fuel ignited on impact. Said Pounder, speaking to a news conference in Hinton late Saturday: “The scale of the damage here is unbelievable. There was no way anyone could have survived that fire.” Indeed, experts said it would take up to two weeks to recover and identify all of the bodies.

The tragedy was the nation’s second major transportation disaster in the past two months—and when the final death toll is determined, it will likely rank as one of the worst in 20th-century Canadian rail history. On Dec. 12 a chartered Arrow Air jet crashed on takeoff from Gander, Nfld., killing 248 U.S. servicemen on u board and eight crew members.

The worst-ever train accident in Canadian history occurred near St. Hilaire, Que., in June, 1864, when 83 people were killed and more than 200 were injured in a derailment. The nation has also recorded two other major train disasters—a January, 1910, accident over Ontario’s Spanish River, with 63 deaths, and a September, 1947, collision at Dugald, Man., which claimed 32 lives.

The Supercontinental, which makes a daily run east to Winnipeg, was a consolidation of two trains that had originated in Vancouver and Prince Rupert, B.C., on Friday. Official manifests listed 103 passengers and 21 crew members aboard the Via train. But that total did not account for passengers who had boarded or left the train at its previous stops—Jasper and Hinton. By Maclean's press time on Sunday, 96 survivors had been identified.

In Ottawa, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney expressed sympathy for the victims and their families and ordered a “thorough public inquiry” to determine the cause. Transport Minister

Don Mazankowski voiced surprise that the collision had occurred on one of the nation’s most modernized stretches of track. The CN Rail main line west of Edmonton is on a computerized signal network known as Central Traffic Control—in this case controlled from Edmonton-designed expressly to prevent accidents of this kind. Said Rennie: “It is the most sophisticated type of railroad signalling available in the world today.”

But for the Skeena’s passengers, the usually reliable system provided not even a second’s notice of disaster. “We were going around a corner,” recalled Perry Warniski, 21, who was heading east to Edmonton from his native Kamloops, B.C., to look for work. “I said to my buddies, ‘There’s a train on the track.’ They said, ‘What?’ The next thing we knew there was a fireball all around us.” His clothes covered in grease, Warniski described the grisly

aftermath: “We smashed windows and tried to get people out. But some people were trapped. And a couple were on fire. You just had to watch them burn. There were dead bodies everywhere.” Among the survivors was Martin Pederson, 64, chairman of the Saskatchewan Liquor Board and a former leader of the province’s Progressive Conservative party. “They had just served me breakfast,” Pederson said. “There was no slackening, no application of brakes, nothing.” As the trains collided, a woman seated opposite Pederson was thrown across the table directly at him. “A sheet of steel came by and took off another lady’s foot. The engine on the freight hurtled by the window. And there was a great explo-

sion, a fireball.” With shards of glass in his face, Pederson, a farmer who flew fighter planes during the Second World War, jumped through a wall of flame, landing 12 feet below in a pile of wheat—part of the freight train’s spilled cargo. The wheat broke his fall and, after treatment for cuts and burns, he was released.

The dining car itself was cut in half—“like a sardine can,” said survivor Bruno Belanger, from Terrace, B.C. Most of the victims were located in the train’s front cars and most, according to more than 100 emergency fire, police and ambulance workers who rushed to the scene, “didn’t stand a chance.” Amid the pine-covered foothills forests, the disaster had left its own macabre memorial: a tombstone of deformed and blackened metal 40 feet high.

— MICHAEL POSNER with correspondents’ reports