Published in the Montreal Gazette on November 29, 2013
We had lived in L’Abord à Plouffe (today part of Laval) for barely a year. Just a week earlier, American President John F. Kennedy, had been tragically assassinated, an event from which much of the world was still reeling. Then, on November 29, 1963, the Montreal area was struck with its own ghastly atrocity.
On a fateful Friday, now some fifty years ago, at approximately 6:33 in the evening, Trans Canada Airlines (today Air Canada) flight number 831, destined for Toronto International Airport, crashed near the Lower Laurentian town of Sainte – Thérèse – de – Blainville. All 111 passengers, (most of whom were from the Toronto area) and seven crew members were killed. The doomed aircraft had departed Montreal International Airport, into a blinding rainstorm, only five minutes earlier.
Shortly after takeoff, at approximately 910 metres (3,000 feet), the Trans Canada crew reported back to the Dorval control tower. The DC – 8 cockpit was subsequently given permission to make a left turn in order to align the aircraft on the programmed path towards Toronto. It was shortly after the start of this manoeuvre that flight 831 veered off course, eventually plunging into very soggy ground near Sainte Thérèse, half-way between Highway 117 and the Laurentian Autoroute. The violent impact was estimated to have taken place at between 870 – 900 kilometres an hour, and at an angle of approximately 55 degrees.
Needless to say that when the first responders showed up at the out-of-the-way site, their discovery was gruesome. Little, if anything, survived the crash in tact, with tidbits of clothing and human body parts hanging from nearby scorched trees. The resulting fire continued for many hours after the accident. One of the first reporters on the scene, CJAD’s Sidney Margles, recounted: “I walked to the edge of what looked like a flaming pit.”
Notwithstanding the loss of 256 passengers in the 1985 Air Arrow crash at Gander, Newfoundland, and the 1998 Swissair accident off the coast of Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia in which 229 people lost their lives, the 1963 Sainte – Thérèse – de – Blainville air disaster remains the most serious incident involving a Canadian carrier in this country’s history.
The requisite Department of Transportation investigation into the mishap was held, with its final report being filed in 1965. As so little of the aircraft survived the impact, the enquiry was unable to determine with absolute certainty the cause of the unfortunate event. On the other hand, even though the doomed, U.S. made aircraft was virtually brand new, a navigational mechanical failure was greatly suspected as being the chief culprit. Other indices pointed in the direction of the abysmal weather conditions on that late November evening.
I was sixteen years old at the time of the horrible affair. Our home was situated not too far from Curé Labelle Boulevard in today’s Chomedey ward of Laval. This thoroughfare proved to be the principal means of getting emergency vans from Montreal to the site of the fiery crash.
To this day, I vividly recall the never-ending sound of sirens as ambulances sped north towards Ste. Thérèse in the desperate hope of finding survivors to rush to Montreal area hospitals. The parade of vehicles continued well through the night, despite the fact that it became increasingly clear to most that it would be highly unlikely to find anyone alive in such a field of devastation. Yet, the relentless wail from the ambulances, and later, hearses, coupled with the darkness of a late autumn heavy downpour only added to the overall gloominess of that incredibly sad night. It is something I have never forgotten.
At what was almost the very beginning of the jet age, the loss of Trans Canada Airlines’ Flight 831 and all of its passengers and crew was indeed an untoward development in the well being of the airline industry. A second crash – this one involving an identical Eastern Airlines DC – 8 aircraft – which took place in the United States, near New Orleans, just three months later only further contributed to the widespread perception that modern jets were perhaps not always as safe and reliable as they were claimed to be.
Nevertheless, with the passage of time and the analysis of statistics, we have all come to realize, now a half a century later, that we are as safe in the air (if not safer) than we are here on terra firma.
Below, aerial view of the remains of TCA Flight 831