50-year anniversary of accident that devastated Dorion
PHOTO BY CARMEN MARIE FABIO
Fifty years ago on October 7, 1966,at 7:35 p.m., a school bus carrying 44 École Cité-des-Jeunes students en route to a dance in Hudson was struck by a westbound CN freight train, immediately taking the lives of 19 on board the bus, including the driver. Your Local Journal takes a look back at the event.
Fifty years ago on October 7, an accident that claimed the lives of 19 young people and left 26 with mild to significant injuries devastated the small off-island community of Dorion and the ensuing shock wave brought expressions of sympathy from around the world and left residents demanding immediate corrective measures.
A full school bus that had departed from École secondaire Cité-des-Jeunes en route to a dance in Hudson was hit at a level crossing on St. Charles Boulevard by a 100-car CN freight train heading west to Toronto, slicing the school bus in half leaving a portion partially submerged in a ditch and dragging the rest 800 metres down the track.
“It's a very sad memory,” said current Vaudreuil-Dorion Mayor Guy Pilon. Though too young to have been a high school student that fateful night, the memory, as for most long-time residents, is indelible. “There are survivors today who still live with both physical and psychological scars,” he said.
Though there's an essential consensus on the time-line of the basic facts of the event, to this day, questions remain and opinions are contentious as to the cause of the crash.
What is known is that the bus, filled with students ranging in age from 12 to 19, and chauffeured by 20- year-old driver Marcel Fleury, set off in high spirits, singing and celebrating in anticipation of the evening dance where dozens of young people had already arrived. The bus came to a stop at the railroad crossing at St. Charles Boulevard as the lighted barriers were down while an eastbound passenger train headed towards Montreal. As the barrier lifted, the bus proceeded on its away, across three sets of railroad tracks, when it was T-boned by the westbound freight train. While some reports cite a couple of youngsters had tampered with the barrier just before the collision, others contradict this. As the train screeched to a halt, the engine of the bus burst into flames, immediately claiming seven lives.
Île-Perrot resident Daniel Petit, 15 years of age at the time, was one of the first people to arrive at the scene of the accident and recounted discovering an injured friend and helping to transport him to hospital. Archival newspaper coverage in l'Echo de Vaudreuil-Soulanges said when the ambulances arrived, they were not sufficient in number and anyone with a vehicle was quickly recruited to bring the injured to the Lakeshore Hospital in Pointe-Claire.
“Even though we were young, we all became adults that night,” said Petit of the memories of the event. “With all the debris and destruction, we became victims of post-traumatic stress and nobody was there to help us.”
He described the scene with myriad deaths and severe injuries. “No one was ready to deal with that.”
Petit said it was the vicar at the Parois Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Dorion, Yves Beaudoin, who recognized the toll the aftereffects had placed on the respondents at the scene. “He listened to us, consoled us, and understood that it would take time to work through what we'd seen. He was the only one.” Even after he left the region for another parish, Petit said Father Beaudoin would make regular visits back to speak to, and console, the survivors and witnesses.
With 19 dead at the scene, another young man succumbed to his injuries a week after the crash and a woman died 32 years later, her death directly attributed to the injuries she suffered that night. Her name is included on the plaque that now stands sentry in Valois Park on St. Charles Avenue, inscribed with the names of all who perished.
A documentary titled 'Survivre' made by filmmaker Francine Tougas to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the crash caught up with 14 of the survivors and explored the after-effects of the accident and their search for a form of closure. Two of the survivors, Miles Drury and Pierre Montpetit, made extensive efforts to obtain inquest reports.
While both a provincial and federal inquiry were carried out in the months following, no criminal charges were laid and the crash was deemed 'accidental' even though a coroner's inquest cited unanimous witness testimony that the barriers had raised allowing the school bus to proceed onto the path of the oncoming freight train. CN Rail offered a monetary compensation to the victims without any admission of responsibility. In Tougas' documentary, one survivor recounts being given $1000 for what CN referred to as 'whiplash' – actually a back injury that continued to plague the survivor 40 years after the accident.
A mass funeral for the 19 immediate victims was conducted the following Tuesday, October 11, in the gymnasium of École secondaire Cité-des-Jeunes with services conducted by Archbishop Percival Caza of Valleyfield and well over 1000 mourners in attendance.
Immediately following the accident, residents and area politicians demanded an underpass or tunnel be built to allow the population to safely traverse the railroad tracks. It was completed in 1972, running parallel to Saint-Henri Avenue and going under both CN and CP tracks. The original St. Charles Avenue immediately above Harwood Boulevard ends abruptly at the tracks, the site of the accident.
A commemorative event with victims' family members and survivors is taking place 50 years to the day – and to the hour – Friday, October 7, at 7 p.m at Église de la Très-Sainte-Trinité at 145 St. Charles Avenue. Though Petit said the survivors themselves will remain silent, a designated spokesperson will express what affects the accident has had on their lives.
“Everyone is invited to the ceremony,” said Petit. “I think it's important for young people to know what happened that night. Most people don't know about it.” As the survivors age and pass on, Petit said it's especially important that young people keep the memories alive in their place.
Following the ceremony, attendees are invited to the pedestrian underpass at the site of the accident to see a mosaic display of artwork created by the group Zone de Graff in conjunction with the survivors and surviving family members. The works will become a permanent display commemorating the tragic event and also portraying a message of hope for the future.