On the afternoon of November 10th, 1979, a Canadian Pacific freight train departed Chatham Ontario with 106 cars, which included several tanker cars carrying volatile and flammable materials including propane, toluene, and styrene. There was also one tanker car filled with liquid chlorine. All the tanker cars were in the same section of the train, so they could be easily separated from the train once it reached its destination.
As the train proceeded to Toronto the wheels and axle on one of the tanker cars carrying flammable toluene overheated due to the lack of lubrication, which resulted in 23 cars derailing at 11:53 pm at the Mavis Road level crossing in Mississauga. Included in the derailment were several propane, toluene, and styrene tankers and the liquid chlorine tanker, which sustained some damage and was leaking chlorine vapour. Some of the propane tanker cars caught fire and mixing with the vapours from the toluene and styrene tanker cars exploded sending debris more than a quarter a mile from the site of the derailment. The resulting fireball could be seen from miles away.
The Mississauga Fire Sevice initiated an evacuation of the area surrounding the derailment site. Halton and Mississauga District Ambulance Service operated by Dennis Munch, Ron Liersch and Allan Duffin activated their disaster plan and called in additional paramedic, dispatch and management staff to assist with the evacuation. The Halton and Mississauga District Ambulance Service also operated the ambulance centre for this area and took control of the ambulance resources responding to assist. Allan Duffin advised the Provincial Ambulance Co-ordination Centre managed by Blake Forsyth of the situation.
The police, fire and ambulance vehicles travelled through the area to be evacuated utilizing their loudspeaker technology to advise people to evacuate immediately. Over 3,500 residents evacuated from the area during this initial call to evacuate to municipal centres such as Square One and the International Centre, some residents requiring ongoing medical assistance being transported by ambulances to medical facilities. Many residents evacuated to other locations, such as other family members’ homes and hotels.
When it was recognized that the situation was extremely serious a command centre was established in the Bell Canada building north of the derailment site. Roy McMurtry, the Ontario Attorney and Solicitor General took charge of the command centre in cooperation with Hazel McCallion the Mayor of Mississauga. Dennis Timbrell, the Ontario Minister of Health, assigned Dr. Bob McBride as a medical adviser to the centre and delegated Richard Armstrong, the Emergency Health Services Branch, Ambulance Services Branch, Central West Regional Manager the operational control and authority for the evacuation of medical facilities should the need arise. This also included the authority to direct other hospitals and health care facilities to open additional beds to accommodate the patients being evacuated.
Other services represented at the centre included local and provincial police, fire services, Canadian Pacific Railway and other related municipal and provincial staff.
Shortly after establishing the command centre, officials were updated on the details of the situation, including the risk of the chlorine tank car overheating and exploding releasing a dense cloud of toxic and acidic gas. Experts advised that such a cloud would remain close to the ground displacing the oxygen in the air and chemically burning anything in its path. As a result, Roy McMurtry in consultation with Hazel McCallion ordered the evacuation of everyone in the path of the potential cloud based on the current wind direction. This included the Mississauga Hospital and the Mississauga Extendicare and Chelsey Park Nursing Homes immediately southeast of the Fire.
Richard Armstrong notified the Ambulance Services Branch and the Halton and Mississauga Ambulance Communications Centre of the decision to evacuate and met with Allan Duffin to develop the plan and put it in motion. Allan notified the Provincial Ambulance Co-ordination Centre requesting they assist in acquiring additional ambulance resources due to the urgency of evacuating the health care facilities as quickly as possible. Initially, Toronto Department of Ambulance Service headed by John Dean along with Superior Ambulance operated by Maynard Ross, Fleetwood Ambulance Service operated by Ray Mitchell from Hamilton and the Peel York Ambulance Service operated by the Ambulance Services Branch were the first to respond and supply additional ambulance resources.
At the peak of the evacuation there were 139 ambulances from many services across the province staged in the area under the control of Halton and Mississauga Ambulance Communications Centre.
There was some reluctance by the Mississauga Hospital Administration to evacuate, however, after repeated dialogue regarding the growing threat to patient safety it was agreed to commence patient evacuation. Initially only the adjacent Nursing Homes would be included in the evacuation however, more would be included as the evacuation area was quickly expanded. The Halton and Mississauga District Ambulance Service upstaffed their Communications Centre and Allan Duffin and Richard Armstrong commenced directing the evacuation of these facilities.
Given the size and scope of this emergency there were a number of Televison Crews at the Hospital, including some from Buffalo, who at one point had to be moved back from the patient loading area to protect patient confidentiality and permit the smooth flow of patient evacuation.
Keeping accurate records of every patient movement was essential and Richard and Allan quickly developed a process for recording all the ambulance and communications information by hand and consolidating it at the end of evacuation. The Halton and Mississauga Ambulance Communications Centre was in control of all ambulances utilized during the evacuation and assisted in compiling all this information which was useful in responding to physician and family inquires.
It was also quickly recognized that the hospital patient chart should accompany the patient to their new location to provide the medical, treatment and medication information to the receiving hospital. Without this, each patient would need to be assessed and diagnosed by a physician at the receiving facility, which would take significant time and medical resources and could place the patient at risk and jeopardize the ongoing treatment of the patient. Though the hospitals were initially reluctant to send their patient charts with the patient, Richard was able to convince them of the necessity to do so.
Over the next 56 hours, as the wind direction shifted, 1,449 patients out of a total of 1,954 patients were evacuated from 9 health care facilities in the affected area to 31 other health care facilities utilizing 139 ambulances and 5 ambulance support vehicles from 25 ambulance services. The Department of Ambulance Services Bus and 15 municipal buses were also utilized to evacuate patients. The remaining 505 low acuity patients were taken home by family or friends.
Remarkably, all patients were evacuated without incident or injury.
Many of the receiving facilities were authorized by Richard Armstrong to open up beds that had previously been closed to accommodate the patients being evacuated. This also required the call in of additional hospital nurses and other support staff to get the beds ready and provide care to the incoming evacuated patients.
Approximately 650 people were involved in the evacuation of the health care facilities including paramedics, ambulance service management and support staff, St. John Ambulance members and hospital and municipal staff. All the patients were repatriated within a week of being evacuated and operations at the Command Centre were terminated.
During the evacuation it was essential to ensure the paramedics were properly nourished and arrangements were made with some of the hospitals being evacuated to supply food and drinks for the paramedics and other people assisting with the evacuation.
It was also essential to refuel the ambulances and not all services provided credit cards to the paramedics for this purpose. Richard made arrangements with some local gas stations to refuel these ambulances and charge it to his corporate credit card.
This was the first evacuation of this magnitude in North America and a great many people stepped up and ensured a successful outcome. Allan Duffin and the Halton and Mississauga Ambulance Communications Centre staff deserve special recognition as they were responsible for overseeing the evacuations of the health care facilities.
What was truly amazing given the size scope and success of these evacuations, is that they were conducted in the absence of current technological enhancements. Todays computer hardware and software, communications officer headsets, AVL systems, hospital electronic patient records and bed registry links did not exist at that time. Cell phones were also not available and as a result organizing and directing the evacuations was achieved through the Halton and Mississauga District Ambulance Services Communications Centre radio system.
The experiences and lessons learned from this evacuation were successfully put into practice a scant six months later. On May 1, 1980 the St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton experienced an HVAC Fire which also resulted in a patient evacuation directed by Richard Armstrong and Allan Duffin.
Richard James Armstrong, M.S.M.
1974 – 1991 Ontario Ministry of Health Emergency Health Services Branch
Regional Coordinator and Manager Central Western Ontario
1991 – 1999 Ontario Ministry of Health Emergency Health Services Branch Regional Manager Central Eastern Ontario
June 1999 – Retired February 2016
Region of Durham
Emergency Medical Services
Allan David Duffin
October 1968 – December 1971
Assistant Mgr Green’s Ambulance Service
January 1972 – December 1073 Ambulance Services Branch
January 1974 – February 1985
Co Owner, Halton-Mississauga Ambulance Service
February 1985 – August 1997
Manager Mississauga CACC
Emergency Health Services Branch MOHLTC
August 1997 – January 2001
Manager Hamilton CACC
Emergency Health Services Branch MOHLTC
January 2001 – Retired, October 2010
Field Manager, Central West Ontario Region #2
Emergency Health Services Branch MOHLTC
Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
Emergency Health Services Branch
EHSB News, Issue 9
Author: R. Blake Forsyth, Senior Field Manager