From the archives: It took a tragedy to enforce passenger-safety seating

From the archives: It took a tragedy to enforce passenger-safety seating
From the archives: It took a tragedy to enforce passenger-safety seating

Montreal Gazette articles from July 17 and 18, 1934, following the July 16 collision of a tramway car and a truck that was transporting passengers unsafely from Ste. Agathe to Montreal. Google News Archives

This story was first published on July 16, 2011, in the Montreal Gazette.


When the driver saw the approaching tram he tried to swerve out of the tracks, but his wheels stuck just long enough to lead to disaster.

The Gazette, Tuesday, July 17, 1934


It was the deadliest accident ever to befall Montreal’s tramway system. Yet “accident” isn’t exactly the right word, for it was no fluke. The collision was a calamity waiting to happen.

It was a few minutes before 1 a.m. The streets were nearly deserted, and the 2600-series tram was speeding north on St. Laurent Blvd. on its last run of the day. On board were motorman Leopold Dupuis and a single passenger, Ernest Roberge.

As Dupuis approached Liège St., just below Crémazie, he saw a truck approaching. It was coming straight at him, its tires apparently stuck in the tracks.

What Dupuis did not realize was that there were more than a dozen people in – and on – the truck.

Most of them, including women and children, were seated on chairs loosely placed in the truck’s open back.

The collision came with appalling force. Six people hurled from the truck died instantly. Several of their limbs were found in nearby trees, and the severed head of Bella Zunick, just 19 years of age, was said to have been found in the tram itself.

Also killed were Boris Smolkin, P. Adeland, Benny Hamat, Benny Schwartz and Leo Haber.

Eleven other people, including Dupuis and Roberge, suffered cuts, bruises and broken bones, and were taken to St. Luc and Notre Dame hospitals.

Corona Filiatrault was also hospitalized, suffering from severe shock. She was not actually in the accident, but had happened on the scene moments afterward and was overcome. No wonder.

The truck was a so-called auto-express, a kind of jitney running more or less regularly between Ste. Agathe and Montreal, picking up passengers along the way.

Later it emerged that hundreds of trucks were employed this way on various routes, especially in summertime for picnic outings.

The law prohibited passengers being charged a fare, but this was got around simply by levying a fee for carrying their baggage. The law also limited the number of passengers in a truck to 10, and in any event was silent on ensuring the actual seating was safe.

Tramways historian Jacques Pharand traces the seeds of the tragedy to a decision of Montreal city council more than 3½ years before. On Dec. 20, 1930, it authorized the widening of St. Laurent Blvd. north of Jean Talon to an unprecedented 112 feet. This helped persuade the Montreal Tramways Co., to establish a new route up St. Laurent to the Back River suburb of Bordeaux.

The width of the street allowed the dual set of tracks to be laid off-centre, slightly to the western side of St. Laurent.

In the fatal, early-morning hours of July 17, 1934, the truck had apparently got caught up in the unbalanced presence of trackage in the southbound lane.

However, when investigators later drove a car at varying speeds over the scene of the collision, no difficulty was experienced in swerving either to the right or the left. The tracks were of a new type, set perfectly into the pavement.

Thus, truck driver Emil Fischer, perhaps over-tired at that advanced hour, might not have been fully aware of where he was in the roadway.

Certainly the man who employed him, Abraham Lifshitz, had much to answer for. Just 10 days before, Lifshitz had been arrested for overloading another truck he owned with fare-paying passengers.

He was fined $10 and made to promise he would not reoffend.

The day after the collision, funeral services were held at Paperman and Sons, then on St. Urbain St. Some 10,000 people watched in the street outside as hearses drew away with the bodies, in pairs at two-hour intervals, for burial.

Late the following day, Lifshitz and Fischer were taken into custody.

On July 24 a coroner’s jury took just 30 minutes to find the two men criminally responsible for the six deaths. That same day Premier Louis Alexandre Taschereau, in his capacity as Quebec’s attorney general, ordered police to crack down on trucks carrying people on the province’s roadways.

Later, the Quebec legislature ordered implementation of at least one simple but far reaching measure.

Henceforth, all passenger seating had to be at least as secure as fixed banquettes.

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