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
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.
Branchline, December 1990, page 11.