Paul McGee, then-editor of the Alberta Pioneer Railway Association newsletter, wrote the following account of the March 23, 1983 VIA RDC tragedy at Carstairs*. His narrative is unusually personal because he was on the train that morning. While I typically avoid such accounts due to their sensational nature, Paul's eyewitness account was so gripping, and the incident so significant, that I had to include it as part of this series, lightly-edited. It really tells the human story, quite different from cold, clinical accounts of such accidents that I included in Part 2 of this series on VIA's Calgary-Edmonton RDC's.
You'll not soon forget Paul's account . . .
Engineer Stewart Tombling and Conductor Charles Johnson did their usual pre-trip checks as VIA RDC-1 6146 sat in South Edmonton on March 23. Inside the station I was purchasing a round-trip ticket to Calgary for a business trip. Conductor Johnson was one of the last CPR conductors; none of this CP Rail stuff, or worse, VIA Rail for him. Conductor Johnson was known for his good humour and trim uniform, slightly cockeyed hat, and an efficiently-operated train. In a brief exchange with the South Edmonton agent, he noted that he would have a light load today, not the 65 passengers of his previous trip. Two hours later, many would be thankful that Wednesday had been an 'off-day' for traffic.
Right on time at 0800, newly-rebuilt 6146 marched smartly out of South Edmonton, reaching Wetatskiwin and Red Deer on time. Conductor Johnson, in his usual jovial manner, advised passengers that coffee in Red Deer station was only 30 cents a cup - and that one taste would tell them why! Beware of the coffee, but the hot chocolate would be OK. At the scheduled departure time, 6146 headed south, skipping its stop at Innisfail and Olds. At Didsbury, my attention was distracted by a tire flying by the window, followed by a fleeting glance of a truck making two complete revolutions in the ditch on the west side of the line. 6146 was brought to a smooth controlled stop by Engineer Tombling. Conductor Johnson and Engineer Tombling disappeared together to talk to the RCMP, who incredibly were already there. This was the last time anyone would see Engineer Tombling. The sight of these two men returning from a brief discussion with the RCMP is permanently etched in my mind, as are the rest of the events of this dreadful day.
The delay was brief and train No 194 was on its way again . With no passengers on or off, the next stop was skipped and 6146 accelerated quickly towards Carstairs, where a spur goes west to a sulphur plant. Carstairs was passed quickly. Seconds later the car lurched violently to the left. Still rocking as Conductor Johnson reached vainly for the emergency brake, the car lurched even more violently to the right, obviously hitting the ground in the process. The car continued at a speed of at least 60 mph as passengers dived for cover, baggage and other items flying around the car. There was a sickening series of crashes as 6146 hit first two sulphur tank cars, then the whole assembly plowed into a string of 10 to 20 more, decelerating from 70 mph to 0 in a space of about 300 feet.
I delicately extracted myself from what only seconds before had been a comfortable reclining seat. The pressures during the crash had been of a magnitude beyond description. Unable to see well because of a sudden loss of glasses, and profuse quantities of blood coming from my head, cheek and eye, I was thankful to be conscious. Conductor Johnson calmly instructed passengers to remain seated then called Engineer Tombling: "Stewie, are you OK?" There was no answer. Only the eerie silence of the powerless car.
Conductor Johnson attempted to get through the incredible pile of rubble which had once been washroom, seats and people. He discovered that he could not move. Then the awful realization that there were people under this pile sank into both the Conductor and myself. One look at this pile revealed that there was nothing that either of the two ambulatory passengers could do. Conductor Johnson said that he would have to get help and at least two ambulances. In enormous pain Conductor Johnson was helped to the rear of the car. Somehow he located his portable radio, and tried to raise the alarm. The radio had lost its antenna in the crash. A lineside telephone, with the best set of hinges and lock I have ever seen, seemed to be the best alternative. The other ambulatory passenger got the switch key from the injured conductor and the antique railway phone in the box worked no better than the radio. Able to flag down a passing truck, help was at last on its way.
I took a quick look at the track switch. It was lined into the siding and locked. This was the sole cause of the tragedy. Looking north up the line, we saw three lights through the haze about half a mile away. The largest-ever washout signal was made by myself for two solid minutes. Without glasses, I could not determine what was coming. With the switch lined into this already fatality-laden RDC, the last thing we needed was for a freight to plow into us.
To our immense relief, this turned out to be a slow-travelling Burro crane which drew to a stop at the switch. The foreman stuck his head out the cab door and immediately went berserk, compounding the tragedy. His repeated cries of "Oh no, oh no!" filled the air, quickly turning to "Please kill me!". He eventually had to be taken away in a strait-jacket, requiring hospitalization. The Burro crane pulled up to the crippled 6146. I pointed out to the Burro crane crew the problem of those trapped in the front end. At last we had some tools. The crew pitched in with grim determination, only to find that crowbars and jacks were just as useless as bare hands in moving the mountains of metal.
By now, emergency units were showing up. With the situation better assessed, the call for two ambulances was upgraded to a General Alarm for all units between Didsbury and Airdrie. The solid construction of RDC cars, so valuable in a minor accident, was magnifying the intensity of the mountain of rubble and it defeated even the Jaws of Life.
The final toll was the engineer and four passengers killed, and all remaining passengers injured to varying degrees. All survivors required hospitalization. I was very lucky, though I am not yet finished with the ordeal. One of every three people on board were killed in Alberta's worst railway derailment accident to date.
Some 40 years after the incident, and nine years after publication of this post, another passenger named Audrey added a comment to this post. I've elevated it to be part of the post because Audrey and Paul were both passengers on this ill-fated run:
"I was on that train... March 23, 1983 will never leave my mind. Forty years ago! I was seated just in front of the conductor, Charles. I was in the back in the smoking section. I always say that smoking saved my life. (have since quit for 13 years) I still see so clearly the events of that day. Especially "Stewie, Stewie, are you OK Stewie? And Paige, taking clothes out of suitcases to use as bandages."
Here's the telex was sent on the day of the accident (above), by L.A. Hill, General Manager, Pacific Region to officials in Montreal, namely: J.P. Kelsall, General Manager, Operations and Maintenance; J.H. Geddis, Vice-President, Transportation Development; and R.R. Morrish, Chief Engineer. Glenn Brosinsky kindly shared two photos of the wrecked equipment stored at Calgary. Tank car NATX 13737 on a flat car:
A standard CP accident report form:
The foreman on the Burro crane involved in the accident had left Company service by July, 1983. VIA 6146, seen resting on CP Rail flatcar 315511 at Alyth in August 1983 (Brian Schuff photo, above) was eventually moved to Transcona in January 1984. A CP Rail Burro crane:
*Though this accident is often referred to as Carstairs, the telex message shows that it actually occurred at a siding named Wessex, just north of Crossfield.