Robert Stirling at The Last Hurrah, Winnipeg, Manitoba, August 2011.Historica Canada
Robert StirlingRobert Stirling
Robert StirlingRobert Stirling
From left to right - Robert Stirling and friend (unknown).Robert Stirling
"I thought, “Oh, geez, hell, we derailed,” that’s what I thought it was at first. And it suddenly stopped like this. And I knew it was a lot more than a derailment, I had no idea how awful it was going to be."
Please be advised that, this veteran’s personal experience includes elements of a graphic nature and may not be suitable for a younger viewer
[The Canoe River train crash, 21 November 1950, near Valemount, British Columbia. A westbound troop train, which Robert Stirling was on, and the eastbound Canadian National Railway (CNR) Continental Limited collided head-on.] I can remember that morning like it was yesterday. It was about mid-morning, I can’t tell you the exact time, about mid-morning, and I’d stood up and I looked out the window and there was this gorge we were just passing over and a second, I don’t think it was any more than a second later, there was a, and I thought, “Oh, geez, hell, we derailed,” that’s what I thought it was at first. And it suddenly stopped like this. And I knew it was a lot more than a derailment, I had no idea how awful it was going to be.
And this came up at the enquiry, there was a big enquiry and there was a lot of finger pointing and blame. The CNR was blamed for putting old passengers cars on, or wood, they were adequate but they wouldn’t have been as safe as if they were metal.
And of course, we all got out and looked and there was this God awful pile of wreckage that went for a couple hundred yards I guess, four to six feet high. And of course, the first thing we’ve got to do is look for guys that have been in it and hurt and alive and as a matter of fact, there were 17 dead, we didn’t know that at the moment. And one of the guys had a sledgehammer and he was trying to break apart a piece of the wreckage and at the moment he swung, this guy stuck his head up and he was hit. I don’t think it killed him but it must have done a hell of a lot of damage. A lot of damage. Couldn’t have been otherwise.
And we worked until, well, the steward made sandwiches for the crew and coffee and the whole nine yards. It was getting on for 3:30 by then, oh, maybe not quite that late, maybe 2:00 and I thought, maybe not this three or more hours clearing up as much as we could, getting everybody out we could find, and I thought I’d got to the sleeping car, they’d set up for a hospital. And the other train, the eastbound passenger train had a doctor and his wife and his wife was a nurse, which was really fortunate.
So I went back to the passenger car and the first guy I saw was Craig [Gunner Robert Arthur Craig, Foam Lake, Saskatchewan] and he was a ghastly sight. He was, it was just awful, it was just awful. Blistered and his skin was hanging off in strips and he said, “Hello Bob,” and the way I responded must pretty well told him I didn’t know who it was and I didn’t for a moment and I suddenly twigged to the accent, he was a South African, about 19 I think. And I said, “Of course I know who you are, you’re Craig, yeah?” And then I said, I can recall me saying something pretty silly in view of the fact that he looked so ghastly, “How are you doing?” Well, it was a dumb question, I guess I didn’t know what else to say. And intuitively, I knew he was not going to survive and he didn’t, he died an hour or so later. And I was glad because there was no possible way he was going to survive. He was too badly damaged.
The rest of the guys in the car were killed either by the impact or the scalding hot steam, because the locomotives were steam in that era. And when they collided, both boilers ruptured and they could only have been killed either the crash itself or cooked alive. And you know, if there’s a blessing in anything, I never had nightmares about it but flashbacks, I had them every bloody day. And I tried to suppress them. They were so painful.
They phoned me up one day in 1991, May I think it was, whatever, Spring I think, and said, “You, you were in the Canoe River train?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “They built a cairn and they’re going to have a dedication ceremony whenever,” he told me the date and he said, “Do you want to be there?” I said, “Yes, I do.” Well, there was only about three of us from my outfit that were there. The other two I saw them, I recognized the name but I didn’t recognize the face. I mean, this is 40 years later. Because I was one of the survivors and Erkhart knew me, he called me up to read out the list of named of those who were killed, 17 and four train crew, two in our train, two in the other.
In all the years since the accident, I’d had a vague memory of crossing this gorge, deep gorge. And I thought, I’m going to check it out right now, so about a 100 yards from the cairn, a big bronze plaque with all the names on it. I went to check and it was just as I vaguely remembered. But I don’t remember how wide it was now. It wasn’t terribly wide but it was wide enough that had the accident happened on there, a good part of the train would have gone into the canyon and the ridge would have been wiped out. And I thought, that as many survived did survive is a miracle. There were 17 dead, there were 30 to 35 hurt, two or three of them, two I know of, they never came back. One lost both legs at the top, there was no possible way he was going to wear prosthetics. He’d live the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Young guy, son, one baby, I think he was about two. And I don’t remember the other guy’s name, he was badly hurt but I don’t remember who he was now.
And it was a few weeks after that, as if I haven’t got enough misery, I got to hear that they hadn’t found all the bodies and I felt guilty that we had perhaps abandoned men that were still alive under all the wreckage. We couldn’t have heard them, we certainly couldn’t have seen and worst still, we couldn’t have got to them because by 3:30, it was snowing heavily, the temperature’s dropping, by the time it’s dark, it’s well below the freezing point. So they froze to death if there were any alive. And they never found the bodies either, it is presumed that animals got them. I don’t know how many bodies were not recovered, I didn’t even know that, but I asked whoever it was, I think it was Erkhart that told me that not all the bodies were recovered and it was the first time I had heard this. And I said, “How many?” I think he said he didn’t know. I think he said he didn’t know. But all through the years, as survivors of calamity usually do, one feels guilty that you’ve survived and so many of your friends died. These guys were kids, for Pete’s sake, some of the barely 18. I think I was 22, I was the old man. Yeah.
It was bad enough remembering what I did remember but to found out we’d perhaps abandoned some of the men, oh, that increased the misery even more.