In 1979 I was peripherally involved in what was the largest peace-time evacuation in North America. Late November 10th or early November 11th, a train carrying tank cars full of propane and chlorine derailed in downtown Mississauga, Ontario. Some of the propane cars caught fire and there was a great danger if some of them exploded they could burst the chlorine tanks and spread chlorine gas (or as they called in the First World War, mustard gas) over the city.
I first heard about it the next morning, where as a member of the Lorne Scots – Peel, Dufferin and Halton Regiment of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserve, I was taking part in the Remembrance Day celebrations in Brampton, a short drive from Mississauga. One of our number had been walking home from the bar when he’d seen a huge fireball to the south, and had assumed that somebody had nuked Toronto.
As an aside, I should mention that a disturbing number of reservists in our Regiment were expecting and hoping for a war to break out. I should also mention that the state of our training was pretty lousy – we could do drill and we could shoot, but we had very little exposure to tactics and rules of engagement and the like.
I enjoyed participating in the ceremony, although I wasn’t high enough rank to be invited to be in the honour guard, so I was wearing combats (or as they say in the US, BDUs) rather than kilt and tunic. It’s a touching ceremony, plus it was an easy half day’s pay.
Before and after the ceremony, we were abuzz with information and rumours of what was going on Mississauga. As we were sitting around in the Junior Ranks Mess drinking, the sargeant came in and said “You know boys, when you signed in for your pay, you’re officially signed in until dismissed. You haven’t been dismissed yet, and we’ve got something else for you to do.” And he lead us out to the street where we had one deuce and a half (two and a half truck) and a bunch of civillian cars.
We headed down to Mississauga in convoy. It seemed that every street corner had police directing traffic, and they weren’t letting people in. The lucky people in the civillian cars (warmer than the back of a deuce and a half) had to put on their emergency flashers to signal that they were with us to get through the road blocks. What we saw of Mississauga was mostly traffic heading out, and otherwise deserted streets. We went to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) station to offer our help to patrol the empty streets or direct traffic or whatever they wanted us to do. But I think they were a little scared about putting uniformed soldiers on the streets without a direction from Ottawa, so we were put in a room, and did nothing for hours and hours. Eventually they told us to go home. We were pretty pissed off at having our offer of help rejected, especially when we learned on the way home that the Canadian Airborne Regiment had been flown over from Petawawa to do the work that we’d been already there on the ground offering to do.
So we left. By that time, probably 4 or 5 pm, there was almost no traffic anywhere on the streets, not even people leaving.
The upshot of the whole mess was that the chlorine tanks didn’t rupture, 218,000 people were peaceably evacuated without major problems and without leaving behind the old, poor, elderly or disabled. The Mississauga evacuation plan was evidently a model for other cities to emulate, and the CN railroad stopped putting chlorine tankers next to propane tankers.