'We all have our ghosts'

TTC CRASH 10 YEARS LATER

A veteran sergeant remembers 14 hellish hours in Dupont station

By PETER CHENEY
Saturday, August 6, 2005 Page M1

Ten years later, Sergeant Ed Lamch can recall the night of Aug. 11, 1995, only too well. Normally, the details are kept locked away in a mental compartment that he tries not to access. But now, a decade after the worst subway crash in Toronto history, he agrees to summon them up once again.

“We all have our ghosts,” he says. “We all have our goblins. These are mine.”

After 34 years as a police officer, Sgt. Lamch has seen knife-wielding junkies, mangled car-crash victims and children murdered by their parents. But the subway crash occupies a special place in his personal catalogue of horrors.

Sgt. Lamch remembers darkness and heat, the sound of crying and, most sharply of all, the whine of a power saw cutting through human flesh and bone. He remembers going down into Dupont station on a hot summer afternoon and coming out, more than 14 hours later, a changed man. “It’s all there still. I just try not to bring it up.”

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The 1995 crash, which killed three people and injured 36, ruined the perfect safety record of the Toronto Transit Commission, which had never before suffered a fatality. But the institutional trauma pales in comparison with the human one. For the passengers and emergency workers involved in the crash, there has never been a night like that one.

Lemuel Layda, now 33, was coming home from his job as a waiter, sitting next to Roberto and Cristina Reyes, a couple who spoke Tagalog, his native language. Mrs. Reyes, 33, was killed in the crash. Her husband, 37, lost both his legs.

After the collision, Mr. Leyda spent 15 minutes trying to extricate Mr. Reyes from the wreckage. He has never ridden the subway since. “There’s a lot of memories,” he says.

Xian Ho Lin, a 22-year-old woman out on a date with her husband, Van Bach Ly, was trapped in the wreckage for more than 11 hours, and was freed only after emergency crews amputated her leg. She died a short time later. Her husband survived, but has no memory of the crash.

“He was never the same,” says Mr. Ly’s lawyer, Kevin Kemp. “He was devastated.”

Also killed was Kinga Szabo, a former member of the Romanian women’s Olympic basketball team and the mother of a seven-year-old boy. (Mrs. Szabo’s husband, a psychologist whose practice includes counselling the bereaved, declined an interview, explaining that it would be inappropriate to detail his own loss, given his profession.)

The accident happened when a train driven by Robert Jeffery, who had been on the job for only two days, rear-ended a parked train on the southbound University line between the Dupont and St. Clair West subway stations. Mr. Jeffery, who expressed deep remorse for his role in the crash, later left the TTC and opened a coffee shop in the Toronto suburbs.

For Sgt. Lamch, the night of the crash started out like countless others. He was a shift supervisor at 52 Division, overseeing the operations of 16 officers.

He reported for work at 3 p.m., and soon found himself involved with a major fire that had broken out in a building on Queen Street. Then, shortly after 6 p.m., a message scrolled across the computer screen of his patrol car, telling him that police were needed for crowd control at the St. George subway station.

At the station, he was met by TCC workers who told him the platform was jammed with commuters.

“Why?” he asked.

“No trains have come,” they replied. “There might be an accident.”

Sgt. Lamch headed to Dupont station. After decades as a police officer, he had a finely tuned instinct for knowing when there was real trouble, and as soon as he arrived, he realized this was no false alarm. “I just knew,” he says. “Sixth sense, intuition, whatever …”

He headed down the stairs. The station was nearly empty. A police officer was emerging from the tunnel. He looked shaken. He told Sgt. Lamch that there was an accident up in the tunnel. “People are hurt,” he said. “We think some of them are dead.”

The tunnel was narrow, just wide enough for a single train. The track ran north, sloping uphill. Sgt. Lamch headed into the tunnel, the beginning of a Dante-esque journey that would last more than 14 hours.

He knew that the centre rail carried high voltage, didn’t know if it had been turned off, so he stayed to the side, straining to see in the darkness — the tunnel was illuminated only by dim emergency lights. The air was moist and hot, and a thin blue haze hung at waist level — he later realized it was probably smoke from the train’s brakes.

He walked for what seemed like several kilometres. “Time stretched out,” he says. “I think I was getting my mind ready.”

A few minutes later, he ran into a police officer who was heading back to the station. It was Constable Eric Bohn. He was covered in soot, like a coal miner, and his face had a grim set. “It’s bad,” he told Sgt. Lamch.

A thought flashed through Sgt. Lamch’s head — if the crashed train started sliding down the tunnel, he would be crushed. He put the thought out of his mind and went on. At last, he saw the train. Its headlights were still on, but there was no sign of life.

“It was a ghost train in the dark,” he says.

He climbed aboard and headed through the empty cars. In the distance, he heard a man’s voice: “It’ll be okay,” the man was saying. “It’ll be okay.”

He arrived at the scene of the crash. The southbound train had hit the parked one at nearly 50 kilometres an hour, penetrating it to a distance of more than six metres. Blood ran along the floor, and Sgt. Lamch heard the sounds of crying and groaning steel. He saw a man trapped in the wreckage, and a dead woman next to him.

The train cars had “blown up,” and were jammed against the tunnel walls, forming a plug of wreckage. To get to the next car, Sgt. Lamch had to crawl underneath the train. In the next car, more people were trapped, including a child who appeared to be about 7.

As the hours passed, more and more emergency workers arrived. Many of them were clustered around Xian Ho Lin, whose lower body was badly trapped. Paramedics had hooked up intravenous lines and given her painkillers. The crash scene presented endless complications— moving a piece of wreckage might help one victim but kill another. Sgt. Lamch watched as paramedics and firefighters moved equipment by passing it hand to hand under the train.

“All these people acted with such courage,” says Sgt. Lamch, his eyes filling with tears. “You never saw anything like it.”

Finally, the trapped child was freed, and carried out on a stretcher. Sgt. Lamch gave her the thumbs-up as she went past, and the child smiled back.

“That was the highlight,” he says. “The only one.”

After about 11 hours, emergency crews decided that the only way to free Ms. Lin was to amputate one of her legs. Sgt. Lamch told the police officers on the scene to prepare themselves: “This is what’s going to happen,” he said. “There are going to be some bad noises. If you want to walk away, you can.”

Some of them did.

Sgt. Lamch recalls that Ms. Lin was calm as Dr. Andrew McCallum, a surgeon from Sunnybrook Hospital, performed the operation with an electric saw. “I found it very troubling and horrifying,” Dr. McCallum said later. “Without question, I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Sgt. Lamch has never been able to forget the amputation. “It sounded like a Skil saw,” he says. “Like you hear on a construction site.”

Some time after 8 the next morning, Sgt. Lamch emerged from the station. The sun was shining, and his cruiser was exactly where he had left it. His wife saw changes in him. For weeks, he was quiet, sitting silently as the images from that night ran through his head, like a video set on an endless, looping replay.

Even now, he is haunted by the image of Ms. Lin and the other victims. “I felt helpless,” he says. “There was nothing I could do for them… . To try and explain what I saw down there … I can’t.”




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This page contains a single news item published by Globe and Mail on August 6, 2005 6:05 PM.

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