Catastrophic accidents or natural disasters may be spectacular or tragic, but they seldom have great historical significance.
Catastrophic accidents or natural disasters may be spectacular or tragic, but they seldom have great historical significance. In the spring of 1914 Canada's worst mining and marine calamities and Newfoundland's worst sealing disasters did not affect the world as much as a single assassination in Sarajevo. Nevertheless, catastrophic events - even those with few fatalities - may have implications beyond the personal tragedies suffered by the victims, their families and communities.
A gold mine disaster in Moose River, NS (12-23 April 1936), involved only 3 trapped men, 2 of whom survived, but firsthand accounts by the CBC broke new ground in radio news reporting. In addition, the knowledge of numerous major accidents has led to improvements in the safety of equipment and work practices. On the other hand, society's increasing reliance on technology makes certain events even more devastating. The ice storms that struck eastern Ontario and western Québec (5-11 January 1998) wrought greater havoc than any before precisely because they wrecked the electrical power grids upon which even rural dwellers had come to depend.
The very size and varied geography of Canada creates the potential for countless disasters. In the first half of 1986, for example, a train collision near Hinton left 23 dead, a blizzard immobilized much of Alberta, forest fires blazed throughout the Atlantic provinces and nuclear fallout from Chernobyl began to drift over Canada. Disasters are of great interest not for their morbid aspects but for the causes that lie behind them and the responses they draw from society.
In Canada the agency responsible for co-ordinating the federal response to emergencies is Emergency Preparedness Canada, established in 1974 and given its present name in 1986. The organization has operated under various titles since 1948, when the federal government established a civil defence organization aimed at countering the threat of nuclear attack. The following catalogue, listed alphabetically by type, contains descriptions of Canada's worst disasters.
Avalanches and Rockfalls
The Lower Town in Québec City has been the site of major rockfalls. On 17 May 1841, boulders from Cap Diamant demolished 8 houses and killed 32 people but did not deter building in dangerous areas. On 19 September 1889 a massive rockslide smashed much of Champlain Street, killing 45; the disaster would have been worse if many families had not been absent attending 2 wakes. The most disastrous rockfall in Canadian history was the Frank Slide of 29 April 1903, which claimed at least 70 lives in Frank, North-West Territories (now part of Alberta).
Snowslides have always been a threat in the Rocky Mountains. Just before midnight on 5 March 1910 an avalanche at Bear Creek in the Rogers Pass engulfed a work crew that had been clearing snow from an earlier slide across the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) main line. One man survived; 62 were killed.
On 4 May 1971, during a rainstorm, a 213 m hole appeared in the mud and clay of St-Jean-Vianney, Qué. The crater swallowed 36 homes, several cars and a bus, and claimed 31 lives.
The first death involving an airplane in Canada was at Victoria, BC, on 6 August 1913, when American barnstormer John M. Bryant was killed in the crash of his Curtiss seaplane. In subsequent fatal accidents the small-load capacities of the aircraft minimized the number of deaths, but when aircraft became larger, and their commercial use became more common, crashes assumed horrendous proportions. Canada's first major air disaster occurred on 25 August 1928 when a Ford Trimotor flew into Puget Sound in bad weather; 7 persons were killed.
The worst commercial airline accident in Canada involving Canadian aircraft was at Ste-Thérèse-de-Blainville, Québec, on 29 November 1963, when a Trans-Canada Airlines DC-8F crashed 4 minutes after takeoff from Montréal International (Dorval) Airport, killing all 118 persons aboard. The cause of the crash was never satisfactorily explained. At Toronto on 5 July 1970 an Air Canada DC-8 made a heavy landing, bounced and lost one starboard engine. In the pilot's attempt to take off and land again, the other starboard engine fell off and the aircraft crashed, killing all 109 persons aboard.
The worst air disaster associated with Canada and the third worst in history was the explosion, likely from a terrorist bomb, of Air India Flight 182 from Toronto on 23 June 1985. The plane crashed into the North Atlantic off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 on board, including 280 Canadians. The incident resulted in major increases in airport security. Later that year, which was the worst for accidents in aviation history, a chartered DC-8 carrying 256 passengers, 248 of them US soldiers, crashed after takeoff from Gander, Nfld. All were killed in the worst air disaster over Canadian soil. Disturbing rumours of the aircraft's previous record of mechanical difficulties followed the crash.
A number of other commercial airline crashes have occurred, several of them claiming dozens of lives. They have involved faulty aircraft, collisions between aircraft, collisions with ground vehicles and undetermined causes. However, progress in the development of automatic recording devices, "black boxes," makes aircraft accident investigation increasingly sophisticated.
Some disasters are notable for reasons other than casualty figures. The crash of a Pan-Arctic Oils Lockheed Electra (Rea Point, NWT, 30 October 1974) was the worst accident involving a noncommercial aircraft; 32 of the 34 persons aboard were lost. Twenty-three persons were killed on 9 September 1949 when a Québec Airways DC-3 was sabotaged with a bomb and exploded and crashed near St-Joachim, Québec. J.A. Guay and 2 accomplices were convicted and hanged.
In the modern air force, the worst crash occurred when a 435 Squadron C-130 Hercules transport aircraft crashed near CFS Alert, NWT (now Nunavut), on 30 October 1991 during Operation Boxtop, a resupply mission. Five persons were killed; the rescue of 13 survivors, conducted in Arctic twilight and terrible weather conditions, has been considered a modern epic of heroism.
The Québec Bridge was involved in 2 major accidents during construction. On 29 August 1907, 75 workmen were killed, and on 11 September 1916, 13 men died.
Of the several bridges that have been built at Point Ellice to cross the harbour of Victoria, BC, a wood and metal, 4-span structure built in 1885 was too weak for tramlines that were later built across it. Shoddy maintenance actually weakened it further. On 26 May 1896, during celebrations for the queen's birthday, one span fell out, taking a loaded streetcar with it. Fifty-five persons died in this, the worst streetcar accident in North American history. On 17 June 1958, during construction of Vancouver's present Second Narrows Bridge, one span collapsed into Burrard Inlet, taking 18 men to their deaths. It was later concluded that design errors had been made by 2 engineers who were among the dead.
Coal mining involves deep tunnels, soft rock, dust, explosives and vulnerable ventilation systems. Major coal mine disasters have occurred at various times across the country. The first was probably at Westville, Pictou County, NS, on 13 May 1873 after a fire broke out at the coal face. As workers were leaving and a squad of firefighters entering, an explosion ripped through the tunnels; secondary explosions trapped many rescuers. The mine was sealed to starve the fire of oxygen, and 2 years passed before the last of 60 bodies were recovered. The men left 31 widows and 80 children.
From 1866 to 1987 there were 1321 fatalities reported in Cape Breton mines, including 65 in an explosion at New Waterford (25 July 1917), and 16 in Sydney Mines (6 December 1938) when a cable broke, sending a riding rake plummeting. The most recent explosion (Glace Bay, 24 February 1979) took 12 lives.
The Pictou County coal field was particularly dangerous because the thick, gassy seams made them prone to spontaneous combustion and explosion. Of the 650 known mining deaths, 246 were from explosions. After Drummond, Stellarton's Foord Pit exploded (12 November 1880) taking 44 lives, and the MacGregor explosion (14 January 1952) killed 19.
Experts considered the Allan Shaft the most dangerous coal mine in the world. In the explosion of 23 January 1918, 88 died, leaving barely a family in the community untouched by the disaster.
The tragedy of coal mine disasters was not only in lives lost, but also in the destitute families left to support themselves in a society with little, if any, compensation, and no government-sponsored income security programs. Moreover, many were permanently injured in these incidents, never to work again. Destruction of a mine left miners unemployed. In 1929 the Allan Shaft was wrecked by another explosion (fortunately without casualties) and was not reopened for 2 years.
The worst coal mine disaster in Canadian history occurred on 19 June 1914 at Hillcrest, Alberta. It is believed that a fall of rock struck a spark, setting off dust explosions that crippled the ventilating fans and burned away half the oxygen in the mine. A total of 189 men died, leaving 130 widows and about 400 children.
In the Springhill, NS, mines alone from 1881 to 1969, 424 persons lost their lives. On 21 February 1891, 125 miners were killed in an explosion. On 1 November 1956 an accident killing 39 men was notable for the rescue of 88 trapped survivors. On 23 October 1958, after the collapse of a tunnel in which 74 men died, 18 were rescued from levels as deep as 3960 m - the deepest rescues ever conducted in Canada. The other 185 died in another 167 separate accidents.
Automation has reduced the workforce in any given mine. The Westray mine explosion near Plymouth, NS (9 May 1992), claimed 26 lives - the whole shift on duty. Westray, however, underlines the complexity of laws as they are now applied. Criminal prosecutions, inquests and a Royal Commission of Inquiry clashed with one another and slowed the pace of investigations; 5 years elapsed before the Royal Commission brought out its report.
Rescue teams have been specially trained to save miners trapped in gas, fire, explosive, flood or other dangerous conditions. In 1906 the first self-contained breathing apparatus for mine rescue in North America was obtained by Glace Bay collieries. Rescue teams were responsible for saving many lives in colliery disasters, usually working under precarious conditions and at great risk to their own lives. Following the Westray explosion, 186 rescue workers were awarded the Medal of Bravery.
See also Mining Safety and Health.
Although the Pacific Coast and parts of central and Atlantic Canada have been shaken by earth tremors, the only one (magnitude 7.2) causing extensive loss of life was centered about 250 km south of the Burin Peninsula, Nfld, on 18 November 1929. A 5m tsunami struck Newfoundland's Burin Peninsula, sweeping away houses, boats and fish stages. Damage was estimated at $1 million; 27 people died. The lower mainland and Victoria, BC, probably have Canada's highest risk of a devastating and death-dealing earthquake, and so far in recorded history have been lucky. There is now good evidence that a very strong earthquake occurred on 26 January 1700 and produced a huge tsunami all along the West Coast.
Before modern immunization programs and vaccines practically eliminated epidemics in Canada, thousands of deaths resulted from outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, typhus, influenza and other contagious diseases. In 1953 polio affected more than 8000 Canadians, killing 481; the next year, with the Salk vaccine coming into use, the death toll fell to 157. Such progress has sometimes been difficult; compulsory vaccination for smallpox was bitterly opposed in Montréal until an 1885 outbreak claimed 5864 lives and made vaccination respectable.
Fires and Explosions
The most deadly structural fire in what is now Canada consumed the Knights of Columbus hostel in St John's, Nfld, on 12 December 1942. An arsonist set fire to the building when it was packed with military personnel and their companions. The hostel was a firetrap: doors opened inward, exits were restricted and there was no emergency lighting system. Within 5 minutes 99 persons had been burned to death and 100 seriously injured. The main fire station was only 180 m away, but the building was doomed before the engines arrived.
The burning of the cruise ship Noronic in Toronto Harbour on the night of 17 September 1949 claimed 118 lives. The blaze, apparently due to spontaneous combustion in a closet, broke out at 2:30 AM when passengers were asleep and fewer than 20 crewmen were aboard; it was well advanced before discovery. Contributing factors included the absence of automatic alarms, a lack of direction by officers and panic among passengers.
On 9 January 1927 a small fire broke out in the Laurier Palace Theatre, Montréal. Firefighters arrived within 2 minutes and the blaze was extinguished in 10 minutes, but in the panic to escape an overcrowded building, many children piled up at the bases of stairways; 12 were crushed to death and 64 were asphyxiated. The most deadly fire in recent years occurred at Chapais, Québec (31 December 1979), when a man playing with a lighter in a social club set a fire that killed 44 persons.
Several major forest fires have destroyed large stands of timber and taken many lives. The Miramichi fire, which began 5 October 1825 after a dry summer, devastated some 15 500 km2 north of New Brunswick's Miramichi River, and destroyed Douglastown and Newcastle. Estimates of the death toll run from 200 to 500. The area's timber trade was crippled for many years, but the fire actually spurred development of logging elsewhere in British North America.
Northern Ontario has been struck by several disastrous forest fires. The worst, the Matheson fire, resulted from small blazes started by lightning and locomotive sparks which combined into a firestorm on 29 July 1916. A wall of flames struck Cochrane, Matheson and environs, burning both towns and killing at least 228. Great fires still ravage Canadian forests, but modern detection, firefighting techniques and air evacuations, such as occurred in northern Manitoba in May 1980, probably mean that huge killer fires have ceased to be a threat.
Numerous cities have had disastrous fires, particularly in the 19th century when crowded, flammable buildings were concentrated, and before the advent of modern watermains, pumps and professional fire brigades. In St John's, Nfld, 3 fires (12 February 1816, 7 November 1817 and 21 November 1817) drove 2600 people (of a total population of 10 000) from their homes. Another fire, on 9 June 1846, levelled most of what was still a tinderbox. The city was rebuilt with more stone and firebreaks. Nevertheless, on 8-9 July 1892 a wind-swept blaze destroyed the city again.
Québec City had 2 fires, 28 May and 28 June 1845, which killed at least 23 and left 15 000-18 000 homeless. The old walled section and lower town were spared, but the surviving city was smaller than that captured by James Wolfe 86 years before. The city was rebuilt with more stone and wider streets. However, to save money the city skimped on firefighting equipment and in 1866 reduced the size of the fire brigade. On 14 October 1866 a fire pushed by high winds took 5 lives, burned over 2000 homes and left 18 000-20 000 homeless. Again, the walled city and lower town were spared.
Saint John, NB, had major fires in 1837 and 1839. In spite of tighter building bylaws, a fire on 20 June 1877 destroyed two-thirds of the city, leaving 15 000 homeless.
The Halifax Explosion of 6 December 1917 probably ranks as Canada's most famous disaster and, epidemics aside, the worst single misfortune in our history. Property damage exceeded $35 million and over 1600 persons were killed.
Canada's worst road accident to date was a single-vehicle tragedy at Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, Québec on 13 Oct 1997. A bus descending a steep hill suffered brake failure, missed a curve and toppled into a stony ravine, killing 43 people and injuring 5. A similar tragedy had occurred at the same spot in 1974 with 13 deaths. Previously the worst bus disaster in Canada occurred near Eastman, Québec, on 4 August 1978. The brakes of a chartered bus failed and it plunged into Lac d'Argent, killing 41 physically or mentally handicapped persons. This toll was more than double that of Canada's worst previous accident, that of 31 July 1953, when a bus plunged into a canal near Morrisburg, Ontario, drowning 20.
Increasingly, motor vehicle accidents claim multiple victims as large trucks share highways with passenger buses and minibuses. On 28 May 1980 a bus collided with a tanker truck near Swift Current, Sask, killing 23 CPR construction workers. On 16 July 1993 a pickup truck towing a fuel trailer collided with a minibus near Lac Bouchette, Québec. The impact and fire killed 19 persons.
The earliest shipwreck may have involved John Cabot, who disappeared in 1498 on his second voyage; or Gaspar Corte-Real, who vanished in 1501 on a voyage to Newfoundland; or an anonymous Basque whaler. The wreck of the Delight, one of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's ships, on Sable Island on 29 August 1583, when at least 85 men were drowned, is the first identifiable marine disaster.
On 23 August 1711 a British fleet under Rear Admiral Sir Hovenden Walker sailing to attack Québec blundered onto the rocks of Ile-aux-Oeufs. The 19 warships and 41 other ships carried over 11 000 men; 7 transports and a supply ship were lost with as many as 950 men. Poor charts, rugged and sparsely inhabited coastlines and inadequate marine aids (fog signals, lighthouses and lifesaving stations) combined to take a terrible toll of ships, which frequently lacked lifeboat capacity for all aboard. As with air disasters, the casualty figures were often relatively low simply because the carriers had limited space.
Three Canadian marine disasters are particularly noteworthy. On 29 May 1914, on her first night out on a voyage from Québec, the Empress of Ireland, owned by the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, was sailing in scattered fog near Father Point [Rimouski], Québec. She was struck broadside by the loaded Norwegian collier Storstad, which opened a large hole in the liner's hull. The Empress filled rapidly and passengers were trapped. Only 14 minutes elapsed from impact to sinking. Of 1057 passengers and 420 crew, 1014 died.
On 20 March 1873 the Atlantic, owned by the White Star Line, sailed from Liverpool to New York with 811 passengers, 4 officers and a crew of 141. Its coal was consumed faster than was anticipated, and on March 31 the captain decided to make for Halifax. At 3:15 AM, April 1, the ship blundered onto Meagher's Rock (Prospect, NS) and listed so sharply that those below deck were trapped; many who reached the deck were washed overboard. In spite of heroic rescue efforts by crewmen and local inhabitants, around 550 passengers died. They included all the women and children aboard, except for one boy.
On 23 October 1918, sailing in a snowstorm from Skagway, Alaska, to Vancouver, the Princess Sophia, owned by CP Steamships, ran onto Vanderbilt Reef, Lynn Canal. Smaller craft approached, but heavy seas prevented them from rescuing passengers. Two days of pounding by waves finally broke the ship's hull; on October 25 the ship sank with the loss of all 343 aboard.
Some wrecks have attained notoriety for particularly dramatic, tragic or unusual aspects. The Montreal (715 t paddle steamer) burned near Québec on 26 June 1857 with the loss of 253. The crew was scandalously slow responding to the report of fire; the ship had caught fire on at least 3 previous occasions.
On 24 May 1881 the overloaded Victoria (27 t paddle steamer) capsized in the Thames River near London, Ontario. In spite of relatively shallow water, 182 perished. The tragic sinking of the offshore oil rig Ocean Ranger, 265 km east of Newfoundland on 15 February 1982, was Canada's first disaster with this type of vessel; 84 men were lost.
Both fishing and sealing off the Atlantic coast have claimed many lives over the years. As recently as 20 June 1959 the fishing fleet of Escuminac, NB, was hit by a massive storm that sank 22 boats and drowned 35 men. It is estimated that between 1810 and 1870 the Newfoundland seal fishery lost some 400 vessels and 1000 men in the ice floes. Although most mishaps involved relatively few lives, the failure of the Newfoundland to recover her sealers during a storm (31 March to 2 April 1914) caused 77 to perish; and the sealer Southern Cross vanished with 173 aboard.
Rail accidents illustrate the multiple causes of disasters. Particularly in early times, accidents could result from improper trackbeds, metal fatigue, fire, flawed rails, human error and frail bridges.
Within a month of the opening of the Great Western Railway in 1854, 6 passengers were killed near London and 7 near Thorold, Ontario. On 27 October 1854 at Baptiste Creek, 24 km west of Chatham, Ontario, a gravel train sent out to shore up rail beds was hit by an express that was running 7 hours late. The accident killed 52 and injured 48 others, the worst rail disaster in North America at that time.
Canada's deadliest wreck occurred at St-Hilaire, Québec, at 1:10 AM on 29 June 1864. A Grand Trunk train with 458 passengers, most of them newly arrived German and Polish immigrants, was unable to stop for an open swing bridge over the Rivière Richelieu. The train plunged into the gap and the coaches piled on top of one another. Estimates of the deaths ran as high as 99, with another 100 injuries. A broken rail caused the derailment of a CPR passenger train west of Sudbury, Ontario, on 21 January 1910, killing 43.
Sabotage may have played a part in the wreck near Yamaska, Québec, on 28 September 1875 as a train was derailed by heavy timbers and 10 were killed. Several wrecks have resulted from crews not taking to sidings to let an oncoming train pass. On 1 September 1947, 31 were killed at Dugald, Manitoba, and on 21 November 1950, 21 were killed at Canoe River, BC, in crashes caused by errors of this kind. The head-on collision between a freight and a Via Rail passenger train near Hinton, Alberta (8 February 1986), which left 23 dead was a similar case of human error negating all existing mechanical safety aids.
Storms and Floods
The Red River in southern Manitoba floods regularly. In May 1950 a flood inundated many valley towns and one-sixth of Winnipeg; more than 100 000 persons had to be evacuated. The construction of floodways to carry off spring overflow alleviated the problem around the city; rural areas, however, remained vulnerable. A massive flood extending from mid-April to early May 1997 flooded 1950 km2 of land and resulted in the evacuation of 30 000 Manitobans. Some 8600 troops were mobilized to assist civil authorities.
Flash floods hit the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean area on 20-21 July 1996 following unseasonably heavy rains. Some 16 000 persons were evacuated temporarily; 10 persons lost their lives.
A tornado struck the core of Regina on 30 June 1912, killing 28 persons and causing $6 million in damages. The worst inland storm was Hurricane Hazel, which struck southern and central Ontario on 15 October 1954 and dumped more than 100 mm of rain on Toronto in 12 hours. There were 81 deaths, most of them in the Toronto area, and extensive property damage.
On 31 May 1985 a tornado hit Barrie, Ontario, in the worst inland storm since Hurricane Hazel. Some 300 houses were destroyed, at least 8 were killed and thousands were left homeless.
On 31 July 1987 a tornado swept through parts of southeast and northeast Edmonton, flattening residences and laying waste to an industrial park and a trailer park. Twenty-seven people, mostly in the trailer park, were killed; insurance companies estimated that they would pay more than $250 million for damages.
The Ontario-Québec ice storm of January 1998 caused the deaths of 25 persons through hypothermia, asphyxiation and fires induced by overheated stoves. Scientists debate whether or not this storm heralds more frequent tempests brought on by global climatic changes (see also Global Warming).
Hugh Halliday, Wreck! Canada's Worst Railway Accidents (1997); Fred McClement, The Flaming Forests (1969); Derek Pethick, British Columbia Disasters (1978); Frank Rasky, Great Canadian Disasters (1970).