On the morning of November 11, 1979, 12-year-old Javed Khan and his cousin were out to deliver newspapers on their route.
Recounting his experience of the day in an interview for the Heritage Mississauga exhibition Khan states, “As we separated and started doing deliveries in our neighbourhood, my eyes started watering […] When I walked up to [my cousin], his eyes were also watering.” Unaware of what was happening, the two boys returned home from their route and told their parents, who turned on the news.
“I was in the Cawthra road area, and several hours later we were evacuated,” continued Khan.
Other stories like Khan’s were showcased at the exhibition event organized by Heritage Mississauga. The exhibition observed the fortieth anniversary of the Canadian Pacific train derailment. Twenty-four cars on the train carrying hazardous chemicals were derailed on Mavis road, between Burnhamthorpe and Dundas, around midnight on November 10, 1979.
While there were many different hazardous materials being transported, the cars containing flammable liquid propane caused a dangerous explosion, resulting in a massive fire.
Evacuation efforts commenced shortly as follow-up explosions continued. Initially, evacuated residents were moved to the Square One shopping mall, which was being used as an emergency shelter.
In the video exhibit available on the City of Mississauga website, former mayor Hazel McCallion speaks on the evacuation, “[people] weren’t even given time to get dressed. They got out of their beds and were told ‘out you go.’ They left their animals. They left their prescriptions. They were told to leave right away, and it was very serious.”
Happening just a year after she took office as mayor of the city, McCallion was about to face one of her most testing situations. In an interview with CBC, she stated that during the peak of the ordeal she ended up going three days without sleep.
While evacuations and fire control were taking place, there was another impeding threat to safety. Chlorine tankers were also derailed and buried under rubble, and with the increasing pressure and heat there was a risk of explosion.
Peel Police staff inspector Barry King recounts in the video exhibit that “[the chlorine tanker] was like a boiling kettle […] the liquid inside the container was boiling, but it couldn’t get out, and it was expanding so much.”
Chlorine gas is much heavier than air and can burn the lining of the respiratory tract if inhaled.
“The tanker had 90 tonnes of liquid chlorine in it,” continued King. “That’s why nobody called them dangerous commodities at the time because it was just liquid […] the worst part is that the coefficient of expansion is 800. It expands 800 times when it comes out into the air.”
With this new threat, evacuation efforts were further expanded, with residents being moved from Square One to high school gymnasiums all over Mississauga. Local hospital patients were moved and within 24 hours there was a city-wide evacuation of Mississauga residents between Oakville and Etobicoke.
CBC reporter Mike Wise states in an article that “at the time, [it was] the largest peacetime evacuation in North American history.”
First responders and other city staff worked tirelessly for days to ensure the safety of residents, diffusing the situation effectively. After six days all evacuation orders were lifted, and full access was gained back into in the city.
In the video exhibit McCallion states, “One of the successes of the Mississauga derailment is we kept the people fully informed. We didn’t hold back anything, we told them exactly how serious it was.”
“Secondly, we even monitored every newspaper, radio, and TV. We made sure that the information given out was not twisted, that it was the fact,” continued McCallion.
“We had an emergency plan and it worked. We have a much better one now. A lot of communities did not have an emergency plan, and after the derailment, the province made a legislation that every municipality had to have an emergency plan.”
There were no casualties in the derailment. The event is now known appropriately as “The Mississauga Miracle” for its unifying sense of community in the ordeal.