The Great Train Derailment of ’79
On the morning of November 11, 1979 I was out delivering the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star to my paper route customers. I was a week shy of 14 years old.
I remember it was cold, damp, and dull. Something felt off in the air. My eyes would not stop watering and they were burning. At the time, I suffered from too many allergies, including environmental allergies like skin-reactions to grasses and pollen. I wasn’t sure what was happening but by the end of my route I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open due to the burning.
When I got home I told my parents about it and they thought I was being over-sensitive. “Don’t worry it will probably go away soon.”
Later that morning we heard on the news that there had been a major train derailment. It happened over night near Mavis road and Dundas in Mississauga which wasn’t far from where we lived. One of the propane tank cars had exploded and caught fire. The city decided to evacuate residents should the remaining chlorine tank cars catch fire and explode. The train derailment became known as one of the largest peace-time evacuations in history.
My parents contacted their friends, a couple they knew since childhood. They were happy to put us up of the night, and my sister and I were thrilled. They had a huge house in Etobicoke and compared to how we lived it seemed like they were rich. What was supposed to only be an over-night stay turned into two or three. It took the emergency crews much longer to put out the chemical fires than expected.
My mom and sister left our house in Mississauga first. I can’t remember why we didn’t leave as a family by my mom was in the middle of cooking Sunday dinner before we got the call to evacuate on the news. My dad and I packed up the Ford Pinto with a few supplies, some clothes, and the unfinished pot roast which went on the floor between my legs of the passenger seat.
My dad drove a 4-speed Ford Pinto, the car I would later learn to drive two years later. I wonder now it if was the model-year that had fuel-tank fires associated with rear-end collisions! While we never got rear-ended in that car, thankfully, we were in a couple of other accidents.
And that’s exactly what happened. Our street, Green Meadows, was completely deserted by the time my Dad and I left. What an eerie feeling driving down the street devoid of people and most of their cars. We made it about six or seven doors down from our house when we were unexpectedly rammed on the passenger side. I saw it coming at the very last moment mostly out of my peripheral vision, but it was already too late. A truck was backing up too quickly out of the deeply declined driveway. Suddenly, all I saw was the bumper coming straight at me.
His truck hit us with huge thud and a bang. It’s hard to describe the sound of metal against metal when you are watching it all happen, in awe of the moment, scared, unable to do anything about it, and simultaneously feeling the hit. The pot roast that was between my feet bounced up from the floor — meat, potatoes and vegetables all over my shoes. I was thrust over towards the driver’s side, somewhat squished in my seat that was now like a deflated accordion, but apparently unhurt.
Everything stopped. We got out of the car, checking ourselves and each other for injury. Our neighbour — a local fireman who was on his way to help battle the train fire — was shocked, worried, apologetic, and aware of his fault. The irony was a bit much. This was a decade before cellphones so he had to go back into his home and report the accident to the police. We had to wait much longer than usual for a police officer to arrive to make notes of the accident. The officer told us to move our bashed-in car to the curb and leave it there until we could return home. We walked back up the street towards home and called our family friend who then had to come and pick us up.
They say accidents happen closest to home. I don’t know if that’s always true, but I remember we never got to eat that pot roast.