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On August 11, 1995, around 6 p.m., Torontonians were heading home from work, like any other day. But that evening commute would not end normally.
Just after 6 p.m., a subway train—Run 35—travelling southbound from St. Clair West station collided with another train—Run 34—in the tunnel between St. Clair and Dupont. Three riders were killed, dozens were injured, and about 40 people were sent to hospital.
The Russell Hill disaster, so named because the tunnel between the two stations runs under Russell Hill, is Toronto’s worst subway crash.
The trains were carrying around 700 people, who were trapped in the wreckage below ground in hot, humid conditions while rescuers worked to get them out. The next morning, the Toronto Star reported that the collision had pushed the roofs of the cars up, blocking the tunnel’s air vents and making the 40 C heat worse.
The Star likened the scene to the bombings in Oklahoma City that had happened that April. A spokeswoman for Metro Toronto said a police officer had said it was “like there’s been a plane crash.” One rescue worker said it was “a piece of hell.” Several people told the Star they thought it was a bomb or some sort of explosion.
Some passengers were able to walk away, and stumbled up the hill at Winston Churchill Park, while others, including a mother and baby, were trapped below ground for hours. It took over eight hours to get everyone out. The parking lot nearby was filled with ambulances.
Three women died: 43-year-old Kinga Szabo, a former Olympic basketball player who defected to Canada from Romania; 33-year-old Christina Munar Reyes, a recent immigrant from the Philippines whose husband was injured in the crash and lost his legs; and 23-year-old Xian Hui Lin, also a newcomer to Canada, who was on her way to dinner with her husband. He was injured too.
Many were left with terrible and terrifying memories. Lemuel Leyda told the Globe and Mail in 2005 that he had tried to free Reyes. He hadn’t ridden the subway after that night because of the memories.
In 2015, 20 years after the crash, the Toronto Star checked in with some of the people who were there that day. They remembered the smoke, the confusion, and the struggle to save people trapped in the wreckage.
Lin was pinned under wreckage for hours, as paramedics and other rescue workers sat with her and tried to save her. They were able to bring in a doctor—a surgeon from Sunnybrook who had to crawl on his stomach to reach his patient—and he amputated her leg just before midnight. She died shortly after.
Locals brought water and juice to rehydrate rescue workers and survivors and one police officer told the Star in 2015 that a small child he had seen trapped later got out of the tunnel and waved to him.
In the days after the crash, TTC workers told the Star that several safety measures would have had to fail to allow a train to rear end another. If a train bypasses a red light, they said, a device called a trip arm should automatically stop the train. Failing that, there are other levels of brakes.
They also said that the stretch between St. Clair West and Dupont was notoriously difficult—a long stretch of tunnel with twists and turns and a steep drop coming down from Russell Hill to Dupont.
A coroner’s inquest said the crash was a combination of human and mechanical error and gave the TTC a list of 236 recommendations, which chief safety officer John O’Grady told the Star had been completed by August 2015.
One of the things that went wrong that day was the Ericsson trip arm meant to stop a train that goes through a red light. That evening, the trip arm flipped down instead of up and allowed Run 35 to continue down the track.
Since the crash, and the realization that the arms were not performing as expected, the TTC started looking across the whole system and identifying overlooked problems in infrastructure, some of which dated back to the 1950s, when the line opened.
David Gunn, who, in 1995, was the chief general manager of the TTC, told the Star in 2005, “What changed at the TTC after the accident? I’d have to say just about everything.”
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