Today marks the start of a new series here on YourSauga: Mississauga Retrospective. This will be a series where we take a walk back through history and spotlight an event, place, or person. And today, seeing as this is the first, we’re walking back to 1979 for one of the most historical moments in the city’s history, an event that is encroaching on its 40th anniversary this fall.
Back in the 1970’s Mississauga, and the world at large, was a very different place. The population of our city was just under 300,000, compared to today in which it’s more than double that. The population wasn’t the only thing different however, the landscape would now be entirely unrecognisable to us. Sure Square One Mall was there, albeit only five years old and a third the size, but the stretch between it and Cooksville was just a few houses and open spaces of nature. In fact, one of the tallest buildings in the city was the Morguard Real Estate Office, which still stands at 55 City Centre Drive, and now rests in the shadow of the Marilyn Towers.
So it’s important when reading about historical events to put yourself in the period; forget about what you would do now, forget about your phone, forget about the internet, and forget about the entire modern infrastructure that’s currently in place. Put yourself in the 1970’s and attempt to live in the shoes of those who experience this event.
On Saturday, November 10th 1979, a 106-car Canadian Pacific Freight Train travelling from Windsor, Ontario derailed. While train crashes are always a travesty, this one was a little different. You see, in the 1970’s it was entirely common for freight trains to carry dangerous chemicals. Such was the case with the freight from Windsor, which was carrying styrene, toluene, propane, caustic soda, and, most pertinent, chlorine.
The train derailed due to an improperly lubricated bearing, which at the time was a type of bearing that was being replaced anyway. As the undercarriage fell off, upwards of twenty cars derailed off the tracks, causing eight to explode. The reverberations of the explosion were felt all the way in Toronto, and it shook Mississauga to its core. The crash occurred at just before midnight, so many residents were awoken from their slumber in the most terrifying way possible.
“I thought it was a nuclear attack,” said resident Alphy McCann. “I was sure it was the end. I had gone to bed just before midnight … when all hell broke loose. I jumped out of bed and looked out the window. The sky was lit up with a huge orange flame.”
Firefighters and police rushed to the scene, which looked like something from World War II. In an interview with the Toronto Sun, Toronto EMS Supt. Bruce Newton had this to say:
“I was off duty and the whole house shook. I could see explosions in the distance…When I got there, there were still massive explosions and things were flying for miles. It was then determined there were cars of chlorine and propane and we started evacuating.”
Netwon was an emergency services worked who lived on the border of Mississauga and he, like all other firefighters on the scene were forced to combat the blaze with not much more than hoses and some saline-soaked clothing. Their bravery cannot be understated as they rushed into the danger zone with literal fireballs blasting 1.5 kilometres into the air.
It’s a true strike of misfortune that the derailed cars were some of the most dangerous, with caustic soda being corrosive to skin, and propane fuelling the blaze. Of the cars that derailed however, there was one that posed a much bigger threat to citizens of the city than any other; the one carrying chlorine gas. Chlorine is an extremely deadly gas that can kill an exposed human within minutes.
As such, Mississauga public servants were quick to evacuate much of the city. Of the city’s near 300,000 population, over 200,000 were forced to flee. Some stayed the night in Square One Mall before moving on the next day. It’s difficult to underline just how dangerous the situation was, but the residents were not allowed back into the city for almost an entire week! This was actually Mayor Hazel McCallion’s first year in office, and she had to undertake the then largest evacuation in North American history! Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 is the largest since then, but Mississauga is still number two.
Firefighters did what they could to contain the fire and essentially let it burn itself out. One person worth noting however is 27 year-old Larry Krupa. The train’s engineer, who also happened to be Krupa’s father-in-law, suggested that he close an air brake angle spigot on the 32nd car, which was undamaged at the time. Larry made his way through the wreckage and immense flames to do just that, releasing the air brakes between the derailed cars and the locomotive, allowing the still-intact cars to be moved along the rails and away from the danger radius. Krupa’s incredible bravery prevented further explosions and potential death, thus earning him an Order of Canada recommendation.
Several hours after the derailment, and following the mass evacuation of Mississauga, Mayor McCallion announced the city “closed until further notice.” Toronto residents were put on alert for a potential evacuation, and even thousands living in Oakville were made to leave.
It wasn’t until the third day following the crash, that the flames finally went out. It was said that as much as 75% of the chlorine gas in the car escaped into the atmosphere. The firefighters spent the next four days continuing to drain the tanks and clean the mess left behind.
The efficiency of the evacuation was such that various cities throughout the world modelled their own safety and evacuation plans based on Mississauga’s. Not only that, but made changes were made in how countries transport dangerous chemicals, as relayed by Greenpeace Canada expert Keith Stewart:
“After the Mississauga crash, there were a lot of changes made to transporting dangerous goods,” Stewart told the Toronto Sun. “The disaster led to changes and after you couldn’t move chlorine in a tank that wasn’t specifically designed to carry it.” Which echoes Hazel McCallion’s own comments that Mississauga’s unfortunate disaster opened a lot of eyes.
On November 16th, six days after the derailment, Mississauga residents were permitted to return en masse to their homes…which resulted in a seven hour traffic jam on the QEW. However that’s a small hindrance when you consider not a single life was ended during the disaster. Meaning the second largest evacuation in North American history was completed in Mississauga and not a single life was lost. It seems quite fitting then that Hazel McCallion prefers not to remember it as the 1979 train crash, but as the “Mississauga Miracle”.
Considering the incredible dangers it posed to the lives of all Mississauga natives however, perhaps we should celebrate this day as not so much a miracle, but as a testament to the unwavering bravery of the emergency service workers who prevented any loss of life whatsoever and ensured November 10th is more of a piece of trivia than a national tragedy.