Voices from a Forgotten Tragedy: Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 831
Voices from a Forgotten Tragedy: Trans-Canada Air Lines Flight 831 by Robert J. Page, Ernest J. Dick and Jean Grant Page (20th November 1963 Productions, $32)
Exactly 50 years ago, after Montrealers were reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, they were to endure another tragedy on a grand scale, and this one much closer to home.
On the evening of November 29, 1963, as the city was virtually paralyzed by a torrential rainstorm, Trans Canada Air Lines (TCA) Flight 831 took off from Dorval Airport for a flight to Toronto. Five minutes later, the DC 8F aircraft went down and crashed in a fireball in the Laurentians area town of Ste. Therese – just 20 miles north of Montreal – killing all 118 passengers and crew members onboard.
At the time, the crash of TCA Flight 831 was regarded as the worst civilian aircraft disaster in Canadian history. The plane virtually disintegrated in the muddy empty field where it crashed, and recovery efforts ran well into 1964. After a thorough investigation and commission of inquiry by the federal Department of Transportation, its report in June of 1965 stated that a definitive cause to why TCA Flight 831 crashed could not be determined. After that, anyone and everyone who were directly or indirectly affected by the crash moved forward, and the disaster and its repercussions were quickly forgotten.
However, there were three people who just couldn’t forget the enormity of that air disaster. Robert J. Page (whose father John Page, a rising executive for the H.J. Heinz, was a passenger on Flight 831), his wife Jean Grant-Page and their close friend Ernest J. Dick, made it their mission to tell the full story of the TCA Flight 831 tragedy. In 2008, they placed an announcement in the Globe & Mail to locate surviving relatives of the crash victims to get their respective stories. Thanks to that and an article about the accident that was published in the National Post the following year, they began to get the complete story of that fateful day in Ste. Therese on November 29, 1963, and how it affected victims’ families, rescue workers, volunteers, TCA employees and journalists.
The trio’s exhaustive efforts to resurrect the repressed memories and forgotten legacy of TCA Flight 831 has come to fruition in a comprehensive book called Voices from a Forgotten Tragedy.
Thanks to thorough research through Air Canada, government and newspaper archives, as well as the countless interviews done through personal visits, letters, phone calls and e-mails, the book gives a complete history of the crash that explores every aspect of it. Instead of a cold, objective history of the event and its after effects, the reader gets a human side to the tragedy, and that it was so much more than a study in failed mechanics of what at the time was one of the state-of-the-art jet airplanes of its day and a list of victims. This is the main reason why this book is so compelling to read, and why it should remain in the national memory for many years to come.
We get to find out what many of the victims were doing as they boarded the flight at Dorval (many were travelling on business trips, and were eager to get home to Toronto for family and personal celebrations); we find out how through the bad weather in Montreal and some sheer luck or fate, some passengers missed the ill-fated flight or decided to exchange their Flight 831 tickets for an earlier or later plane; we find out the gruesome scene at the crash site from the firemen, policemen and recovery crews who had the grim task of searching for body parts and the wreckage of the aircraft (and how they were horrified to see hangers-on who eagerly snatched up personal effects and pieces of the plane for souvenirs); and we find out the legacy of the crash, especially how it led to the almost immediate installation of flight recording devices (the “black box”) in aircraft cockpits that made the job of investigating the causes of aircraft crashes much easier.
However, it’s the human side of this disaster that gets the most coverage in this book, and tells that side of the story that for many has remained repressed and untold for nearly 50 years. From surviving family members, the reader finds out what kind of people the victims were, and for most part, how they were caring, loving family people, as well as hardworking business people who were making strides in their respective professions (one of them, CBC TV producer Don Hudson, was producing a series of ambitious bilingual variety shows at the time of the crash, and was also working on plans to create a show for comedy duo Wayne & Shuster for the American TV market). We also find out how the sudden, tragic deaths of their loved ones either strengthened their resolve, or forever scarred them emotionally, not to mention the difficulties many of them had to collect life insurance claims or were left with little or no money to fend for themselves afterwards. In a way, their cooperation towards the making of this book by telling their stories was a type of therapy that helped soften the blow of breaking their silence of enduring such a tragic loss.
And to the authors’ credit, they have given a fitting tribute to all 118 victims of TCA Flight 831. Towards the end of the book, a chapter is dedicated to them, where their lives are dignified with 118 mini profiles that prove they were more than just names on a casualty list or a marble memorial tablet.
Voices from a Forgotten Tragedy is a powerful book that gives an all encompassing look at the anatomy of a tragic airplane crash at the time when air travel by jetliner was seen as a luxurious mode of transportation. The tragic end of Trans Canada Air Lines Flight 831 may have been left forgotten for nearly 50 years, but thanks to the Herculean efforts of Robert J. Page, Jean Grant-Page and Ernest J. Dick, the memory of this dark day in Canadian history has thankfully resurfaced and should remain etched in the conscience of any individual who ever travels by aircraft. They should never take air safety for granted, for any accident that happens creates more victims than just those who happen to be onboard the plane in question.
To purchase a copy of the book, go to www.tcaflight831.com.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org