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Pinning on Names

The holidays were ending just the way they began: with a train ride, and five-year old Bernard Turcotte couldn’t have been happier. He and his parents, Maurice and Cecile, and his nine-month old baby sister Denyse, had travelled to Petawawa for the first time to visit his grandmother for Christmas. They had scrimped and saved to pay for the ride and now they were travelling back home to Ottawa so his father could return to work on Monday.

Photograph of infant Denyse Turcotte in a chair, 1942

Young Denyse Turcotte – August 1942

They were sitting beside the nicest family, the O’Brien’s they had said, in the last seat of the last coach of the train. When Bernard turned around, he could see right out the window of the back door! Although there wasn’t much to see tonight, being too dark and stormy. Oh well, he was too busy being entertained by the O’Brien’s anyway. The families were laughing back and forth andsinging Christmas carols.

They reached Almonte Station and Bernard asked his mother if he could open the back door and look out from the balcony. Sure, she said. It was so blistering cold, the adventure didn’t last long, and he closed the door just as quickly as he opened it. But he had seen something different. A bright light, coming towards them.

He had just enough time to ask his mother what it was before the impact.

The rear coach seemed to explode and the Turcottes were thrown from the train into the snow. Bernard and his parents were horribly injured.

Denyse did not survive.

Offering a Helping Hand

Across the river, Florence Illingworth was washing her hair and heard the crash. She was used to hearing noises from the train station; the water carried every sound as clearly as if she had been standing on the platform, but this was like nothing she had ever heard before.

By the time she got outside, cars and trucks were rushing past her on the way to the Rosamond Hospital, just two houses away. She slipped a beret over her damp hair, and hurried over to see if she could help. It was pandemonium. The nurses needed more help badly.

The four members of the Turcotte family sitting for a portrait, 1946

The Turcotte family after the accident – 1946

Florence worked throughout the night in the basement of the hospital, where many of the worst cases were brought. It was there she met Maurice and Bernard.

Florence stayed in touch with the Turcotte family and in January 1944, two years after the crash, Florence recounted her memories of the night in a letter to Cecile Turcotte…

I helped with your husband and the bones surely were right out through [his legs] and his head was also hurt. He was on a bed and while we were there he heard me speak to Bernard and rose up and said ‘I hear my son,’ and Bernard said ‘I’m here, Daddy.’ We didn’t think Bernard was hurt so badly as he said ‘I’m all right, I was thrown out on the snow.’ But just a little later I didn’t like the look of him and called Dr. MacDowall and we cut his snow suit off and then we saw he was badly hurt, so we bandaged him and put him under hypos. [H]e was on blankets on the floor at the feet of his Daddy’s bed. It surely did upset me when I heard him say ‘I’m here, Daddy,’ as we didn’t then know who anybody was, but shortly got the names and pinned it on them before they  got  unable  to  tell  us.

They were so terrible looking with smoke and some kind of oil and everyone’s hair was just so grimy and filled with sawdust or something, and mixed with blood. It was terrible. Your husband and Bernard or anyone else won’t remember any of us I am sure. I gave your husband some spoonful’s of hot cocoa to help the hypos take effect. With the shock it was impossible to get them under.

Your husband asked me to find you but I couldn’t locate you, although the baby was in the operating room and my neighbor Ms. McLaughlin was with the baby until [she] died. There wasn’t a mark on the poor little soul being hurt inwardly, she said the baby was such a darling baby.

 One poor fellow asked me ‘What happened?’ and I said ‘Oh! You were in an accident and you are in the Almonte Hospital’ and that was all and he was gone. I’ll never forget it, the poor mangled people. How they lived as long as they did I’ll never know. We had seventeen in the basement where I was. The worst were brought there.