Disaster Train

Conroy Road grade crossing in Ottawa, the location of the mock disaster on September 13, 1990.  Photo by Ray Farand.

Shortly after 15:00 on Thursday, September 13, 1990, an inconspicuous CP Rail freight train slowly pulled out of the east end of Walkley Yard in Ottawa towards the Conroy Road grade cossing at Mile 2.1 of the Walkley Line. The train consisted of RS-18u 1853, followed by five 50-foot plug door box cars, a 17,216 imperial gallon company-service tank car placarded to indicate a group 3 dangerous goods cargo (a highly flammable petro-chemical), five more similar box cars, and a working van carrying the markers.

Once on the crossing, the train was stopped so that the tank car was squarely between the crossing gates. A school bus full of passengers was then driven around the lowered crossing gate on the south side and up to within inches of the side of the tank car.  On the other side of the crossing, a small truck was driven up to the tank car.

What happened next was truly unusual if not bizarre. A wave of people, numbering over one hundred, descended from the bus and other support vehicles, and began to spread out along the right-of-way on either side of the crossing. Some sat on the ballast or in a nearby ditch, while others lay on the ties between the rails of an adjacent track. The occupants of the small truck remained "trapped" in the vehicle. One could not help notice their appearances. Many had deep cuts and gashes clearly visible through torn clothing. Others, while not physically disfigured, demonstrated symptoms consistent with trauma. Low throaty moans, sharp cries of pain, and calls for help permeated the air, and it was quite clear that many people had become casualties of a major accident and needed help quickly.

The stage was now set for the opening act of "Operation Evening Star", a mock disaster designed to test the emergency preparedness of rescue forces in the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton. The exercise was scheduled to continue throughout the late afternoon and evening not only at this site, but at two additional locations in the metropolitan area. In addition to the bus-train "crash", a mock tractor-trailer collision would take place in Kanata, along with a propane tank explosion in West Carleton. In total, more than 34 agencies, including three police forces, four fire departments, thirteen hospitals, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, would respond to these "emergencies". Each mock disaster would be carefully observed by a battery of evaluators intent on determining where performance could be improved so as to better handle a real emergency.

At approximately 15:30 the word went out over the CP Rail radio channel five: "Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!" The mock disaster was officially underway.

Activities seemed to unfold slowly at first, probably due to communication and logistical considerations.    The train crew contacted the CP Montreal dispatcher to notify him of the accident. It was a chilling conversation to overhear - "We have been struck by a loaded school bus, and there are numerous casualties". The dispatcher in turn relayed this information to Ottawa-Carleton authorities, who ensured that the proper emergency personnel were dispatched to the scene. City of Ottawa fire trucks were the first emergency vehicles to arrive (the station is only a quarter mile from the scene). Ambulances began to airiveon the scene after some ten or fifteen minutes. Difficulties associated with response time were later blamed in part on rush-hur traffic, and a lack of direct access to the crash scene due to
road closures.   In addition, emergency vehicles responded at ormal speed, and not as if there was a true emergency.

Once at the scene, emergency workers tended to a seemingly endless throng of casualties. What had started out as a somewhat make-believe staged performance complete with costume and make-up, quickly turned into a sobering drama. Rescue personnel moved from one casualty to the next, identifying those with major
injuries, and in some cases pronouncing them dead.   This was serious stuff!! What if this were a real accident and I was there injured and lying on the ground waiting for help. The thought was chilling to say the least.

From a statistical point of view, the mock disaster on Conroy Road produced 107casualties. Fifty-four of the most seriously injured were all removed by ambulance. Thirty ambulatory injured were also removed from the scene by ambulance or by other means. Twenty-two individuals lost their lives at the site, and one died on the way to hospital. At the conclusion of the exercise, over two hours after it had all begun with the emergency call to Montreal, fifty-five casualties remained at the site, still not sent to any treatment centre.

Behind the scenes, cooperation between the civilian population and authorities in charge of the mock disaster extended beyond the crash site and into the local neighbourhood. With leakage of the highly flammable liquid an ever-present possibility, potentially entering local storm sewers, an evacuation notice was issued to selected residents in the immediate area. In response to the exercise, representatives from approximately fifty families were processed through an evacuation centre set up at nearby Charlebois High School.

Whether the disaster simulated reality sufficiently to enable evaluators to get a real indication of the Region's ability to cope with a real major emergency will be determined by the professionals. An undertaking of this magnitude requires a huge amount of preparation and coordination of logistical problems at command centres and in the field, so that problems can be identified and subsequently managed properly. Perhaps 107 casualties was too great a number of people to process in a short period of time. This figure appeared to be disproportionately high given the nature of the accident. Certainly no one can take anything away from the substantial effort made by rescue personnel in their attempt to save lives. Emergency service agencies in the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, with the cooperation of CP Rail are to be commended for their efforts.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, December 1990, page 11.

Home    Circle    Articles