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Firefighters battle a train fire in Mississauga, Ont., in 1979.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

It’s been called the “Mississauga Miracle” – the greatest Canadian disaster that never was.

Forty years ago on November 10, a 106-car Canadian Pacific freight train loaded with propane, chlorine and other toxic chemicals derailed and caught fire in the suburban city, unleashing blasts of poison clouds that took almost a week to clear. The emergency prompted the largest peacetime evacuation in Canadian history as more than 226,000 people fled. Yet there were no casualties.

Many remember it as a unifying event for Mississauga, then just five years old. Some 20,000 people took shelter in public spaces such as the Square One and Sherway Gardens malls. Local grocery stores and businesses offered free food and supplies, and many residents say there was a real sense that the sprawling community west of Toronto had finally become one.

To mark the 40th anniversary, The Globe and Mail spoke with people who fought, watched, fled and reported on the derailment.

(The job titles below are those the interviewees held in November, 1979.)

Cyril Hare, Mississauga chief fire inspector: I lived about a mile south of where the train wreck was. My wife and I had some friends over at the time and one of our friends looked out the back window and said, “Your house is on fire!” I jumped outside and said, “Oh my God!” There I am, the chief fire inspector, and my house had caught fire.

Gord Bentley, Mississauga fire chief: I was looking for the keys to my fire-service vehicle after I heard about the crash. Then I saw the sky light up.

Mr. Hare: The deputy fire chief, Art Warner, was at his son John’s wedding that night up in Brampton. Somebody went outside, looked south and came back in and said, “There’s a big fire going on down in Mississauga!” So Art said, “I gotta go.” He showed up at the scene in a tuxedo.

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More than a dozen CP Rail cars lay scattered around the track as firemen direct water jets on to the cars.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

Barry King, Mississauga police staff inspector, command post co-ordinator: I was just returning from downtown Toronto with my wife and family in the car. Then we saw the fire. It was horrendous. You couldn’t see any part of the sky that wasn’t red.

Mr. Hare: I rushed out and jumped in my fire department car. Immediately we realized that there were propane tanks involved and that we were going to have huge explosions very soon.

Mr. King: The police radio was crackling non-stop. Everybody was calling at the same time.

Mr. Hare: Trying to get people to leave was almost impossible, because everybody wanted to come out and see the fire. A young dispatcher came up to me and said, “What should I do?” I said, “Well, there’s going to be the biggest explosion you ever saw in your life, so get behind something!”

Joe Zammit, 12-year-old observer: The sky was orange, just orange. My father said, “Get some clothes on, let’s go see what the heck this is about.”

Mr. Hare: The relief valves on the propane-tank cars were pouring flames. People don’t realize how loud they were – they were shrieking like jet engines. Then they changed pitch. If you know what to listen for, you know that means they’re about to blow. I started hot-footing it down the road. Everyone saw the guy in the white hat running. They said, “He knows something we don’t,” and they all started running with me. That’s when it happened. A huge flash of light and a shock wave that knocked us all in the ditch.

Mr. Zammit: We could feel this massive wave of heat just come through us. My father looked at me and said, “Son, this is no place for us.”

Mr. Hare: After the explosion, there was no problem getting the public to leave.

At this point, 27 cars were still attached to the burning train. Train brakeman Larry Krupa rushed the flames and uncoupled two tankers, allowing his father-in-law, engineer Keith Pruss, to separate the remaining cars from the train. Mr. Krupa was recommended for the Order of Canada for his bravery and inducted into the North American Railway Hall of Fame.

Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga: I was in bed at the time, and my son heard the explosion. He went up on the roof to see it and when he came down he said, “Mom, I think City Hall blew up.”

Mr. Hare: I was surprised we weren’t killed. When it blew up and I saw that flash, I thought, “Well, this is it.” But then everybody got up and nobody was hurt.

Minutes later, a second explosion launched a tanker hundreds of feet into the air. It landed about a kilometre away.

Mr. Bentley: There were three major explosions in all, as you might call them. We call them BLEVEs, boiling liquid expanding vapour explosions – very common with propane that’s been superheated. We lost the Parks and Recreation building – it was on fire before we even got there.

Ms. McCallion: Within a few minutes of the explosion, the fire chief called me and told me about the derailment and that people in the immediate area had been evacuated to Square One, which had opened up its facilities. The people there were in their night clothes because the police wouldn’t even give them time to get dressed. So I got up and I went to Square One.

Mr. King: We set up a command centre upwind of the crash so that we wouldn’t inhale any of the chlorine. We determined there that we needed help, so we called Toronto, we called York, we called Halton and we called the OPP.

Ms. McCallion: I went to the command centre and I didn’t go to bed for three nights. The train had to be constantly monitored because it was emitting chlorine, and we needed to evacuate areas depending on which way the wind blew because chlorine is so deadly.

Mr. Bentley: We decided early on that it was futile to try to put the fire out, so we took a defensive position and tried to protect the buildings in the area. At the start, the fire was very large, potentially impossible to put out. We were hitting it with 5,000 gallons of water a minute.

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Water sprays the still-burning rail cars as firefighters wearing breathing apparatuses head for the wreckage.Jack Dobson/The Globe and Mail

The fire finally went out after burning for more than two days. Thirty-five pounds of chlorine were also leaking out of a damaged tanker every hour. It took three days to deal with the chlorine, and eight firefighters had to be hospitalized for chlorine inhalation.

Mr. King: I went down with one firefighter near the train, and this puff of chlorine gas waved over toward us. It just looked like a funny little cloud. He got a real dose of it and down he went. I don’t believe he ever went back to work. I had a tenth of what he had, but it was just enough to sear me. I was coughing up green phlegm the whole week. Doctors told me I would start feeling the effects of the chlorine when I got older. I started feeling it around 51. … Now I can only walk my dogs past three or four houses before I have to sit down.

Mr. Bentley: Getting rid of the chlorine was quite an operation. It was vacuumed out into a 250-foot pipeline we had built so that the chlorine flowed into a tanker truck, which was loaded up with sodium. When the chlorine hit the sodium it made salt water. We were able to then dump it out.

Mr. King: I think we were on a high at the time doing it. I don’t mean getting excited, going, “Gee, this is great.” We were really hyper-focused.

Mr. Bentley: All together, I put in 186 hours on duty in 10 days.

Mr. Hare: I left home on Saturday night just before midnight and I didn’t come home again to see my wife until the following Friday night. We slept at the fire hall and rotated 12-hour shifts. At the station, back at the scene, at the station, back at the scene. My house was in the evacuation zone so there was no real going home.

John Stewart, Mississauga journalist: It was a once-in-a-lifetime story and still the most memorable moment in my career.

Mr. King: There really was hardly any criminal activity. It made us wonder, “Are we missing something?” And the other thing is there was nobody injured. We had to evacuate a hospital with 500 people in it and three or four nursing homes that had about 100 people each – those were the toughest. But no one got hurt.

Mr. Stewart: Everybody in Mississauga has a derailment story. My favourite? There was this woman who had evacuated to her friend’s house, but she left her tickets to the opera back home. So she canoed across the river to go get them.

Mr. Zammit: After we were evacuated, we had to go back because I needed to get my heart medication from my house. The police escorted us through an absolutely empty city. Road after road of absolute nothing. Ghost town. I’ll never forget that.

Ms. McCallion: Prior to the derailment, municipalities were not mandated to have an emergency plan. We had one, but other municipalities didn’t. As a result of the Mississauga derailment, it became mandated by the province. Now everyone has one.

Mr. Hare: Because of what happened, there’s a lot more legislation on the transportation of dangerous goods and workplace hazard information.

Mr. Bentley: Most people couldn’t even pronounce Mississauga prior to this. People just knew that it was some place up in Canada near Toronto. Because of the international coverage, and the way it was handled, the incident put the city’s name on the map.