After a weekend rail disaster devastated a Quebec downtown, imagining a runaway train causing havoc in the middle of Winnipeg is not that far-fetched. It's a scenario the city's emergency preparedness co-ordinator, Randy Hull, has used in training sessions.
"One of the exercises I have is a derailment of a train at The Forks that's leaking anhydrous ammonia vapour," said Hull.
A real runaway train in the middle of the city caused an explosion that rocked Norm Yetman's world 30 years ago.
On Dec. 13, 1982, a runaway train collided with an empty propane tanker and exploded in Winnipeg's CP Rail yards.
"We could feel the shock waves through the building," said Yetman, who was nearby that night installing new computers at Yetman's Ltd. "We ran to the front of the building to see what was going on."
'The only thing that kept us from being levelled was another set of boxcars between us and what exploded' -- Norm Yetman
A train of six runaway diesel locomotives smashed into an empty propane tanker car, setting off an explosion that shook hundreds of area homes and sent a huge fireball into the sky.
No one was seriously injured.
"The only thing that kept us from being levelled was another set of boxcars between us and what exploded," said Yetman.
"The building itself wasn't affected structurally."
The city responded to the emergency promptly, Yetman said.
"The cops and fire department showed up pretty quickly, determined it was safe to leave the building, and we got out."
Every year, the city simulates such disasters to test its emergency response, said Hull.
"Emergency management is really out-of-the-box thinking that takes into account everything around," he said. "Is there a daycare or personal care home nearby? If it's anhydrous ammonia and heavier than air, is it going into basements before the third floor?'" It involves many city departments and other levels of government and outside agencies and organizations, he said.
"We need to see who's making the right calls."
They learn not to duplicate an effort or assume someone else is taking care of it, for instance.
The city carried out six simulated disasters last year on its own and partnered with other entities such as the Winnipeg Airports Authority, Maple Leaf Foods and Manitoba Hydro. Planning for and responding to a disaster involves many city departments, levels of government and agencies, he said.
"We need to bring everyone to the table," said Hull. "You're only as good as your last disaster. Becoming complacent and a lack of experience responding will hinder the response time."
Citizens have a role to play too, he said. "There needs to be a level of preparedness."
Residents have to think about the possibility of a disaster and what they'll need if they have to leave their home for 72 hours -- medication and important papers, for instance.
"We hope our planning, training and exercising puts us in a position to respond. I'm very confident in the people around me." Studying disasters elsewhere helps, too, said Hull.
"We're going to learn about the evacuation and derailment in Quebec, but will never have the exact same thing happen here," he said. "Not every train derailment follows a script -- we simulate the best we can," he said. Hullwrites a "script" for an emergency then sees how people respond as new information is called in every few minutes. "It's done for train derailments tornadoes, power outages," he said.
"Emergency management is not an exact science -- it's not black and white. You have to constantly readjust and hope the people you've got on line are good decision-makers and quick decision-makers."
Hull is on a volunteer committee that organizes a disaster management conference every March for Manitoba that draws about 400 people. He said emergency managers from High River, Alta., and Lac-M©gantic, Que., will be invited.
"We'll hear straight from the horse's mouth -- what worked and what didn't... how you responded and recovered," said Hull. "We need to learn from each other and that's why it's so important to be talking."