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GO train drama: How I survived the Toronto flood

So, how was your commute home last evening?

Mine began by boarding the 5:30 p.m. GO train that leaves nightly from Toronto's Union Station and travels due north to my home in the suburb of Thornhill, a ride that normally takes 35 minutes.

Last night, my journey home took seven-and-a-half hours and ended with our train's anxious, weary and decidedly damp passengers stumbling over railway tracks in pitch-black darkness toward the nearest road and emergency personnel. Home was still a bus ride away but most of us were absurdly grateful just to get off that waterlogged train.

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The torrential rain had been pounding the city for roughly 40 minutes when our train came to a dead stop 10 minutes after leaving the station.

A GO official immediately announced over the public-address system that the train was stopped due to flooding on the tracks. Then he came back on again to deliver the even more disappointing news that our train would be turning back to Union, which naturally elicited a collective groan among the 1,000 or so passengers on-board.

Twenty minutes later, the same GO official came back on the speaker to inform us that we wouldn't be going back to Union after all, since the tracks were also flooded in that direction. And right around then, the tiny Asian lady sitting directly opposite me pointed out the window and in a tiny voice she said, "Look, look, look, water getting higher."

For those commuters who haven't had the pleasure, the standard GO train has three passenger levels, not unlike a low-rise apartment building.

The 5:30 GO commute is naturally full capacity in passengers most weekdays and I was situated on the middle level on the last car of the train. The rain was still sheeting down outside and we all watched as the water inched higher and higher.

And higher still. In less than 20 minutes, the tracks were no longer visible.

And since the rain wasn't letting up, the water just kept rising. Passengers on the lower level vacated the premises once it reached the doors and began streaming in.

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It took less than an hour for the entire lower portion of the train to fill with muddy brown water from the adjacent Don River. Technically speaking, we were in the river.

Nobody panicked (yet), and passengers still kept a modicum of good humour, even when the water kept rising, up and over the stairs. Nobody was amused, however, when our middle level began to slowly fill with water.

Most passengers took off their socks and shoes and rolled up their pant legs. The passengers who had previously been seated in the lower level had relocated to higher ground. The Asian lady, obviously realizing we were in for a long night, took out a fresh bag of bagels and offered them to those sitting around her. Then she bolted to the upper level.

And with the lower level waist-deep in water, things were now getting crowded on the train. My shoes were already soaked from the walk to the train station, but I took them off anyway.

And how swiftly rising water seems to rise when you're right in the middle of it. In the blink of an eye, the brackish water in our compartment was well above the ankles, but at least it had stopped rising. So began the waiting game.

By 9:30 p.m., we had heard five or six announcements from the same GO CSA (Customer Service Assistant) assuring us that emergency personnel were on the way.

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To a person, every passenger was glued to a cell phone, either phoning loved ones or looking for details on various media outlets. A woman with an iPad streaming live video of our GO nightmare was suddenly very popular.

From our compartment window, we could see a phalanx of police cars, fire trucks and EMS vehicles lined up along a roadway to our west. Although they were less than a hundred yards way, it was fairly apparent they couldn't do anything until the water level outside dropped.

By this point, we had been on the train for four hours. People were getting hungry and there was much muttered concern among the passengers about using the bathrooms. The washrooms located on the lower level were completely flooded.

Some minor drama ensued. With the air conditioning shut off it was beyond stuffy on the train and a woman on the upper, much dryer level had an asthma attack. A frantic call went out for an inhaler, which was proffered by a fellow passenger almost immediately.

Another woman on our level had an anxiety episode and kept telling people she had to get off the train, over and over. Her fellow passengers gave her a drink of water and she quickly calmed down.

But like clockwork, every 20 minutes or so, the same GO official came on the speaker to tell passengers again that emergency personnel were on-site to fix the situation. A car midway through the train was designated as the emergency car and those passengers with health issues were advised to go there to be evacuated.

Around 10 p.m., several GO employees and Toronto EMS personnel had boarded the train and were going from car to car to check on people's well-being. Large windows were removed to let in fresher air.

On our car, the window on one side was removed and the emergency personnel floated a small dinghy alongside the train in order to remove the woman who had the asthma attack earlier. They had room on the boat and the rescuers said they could take three more passengers, providing they were female. Are you listening, Gloria Steinem?

They came and they left quickly, and we went back to waiting for rescue. A mildly disgruntled Russian man decided to remove the large window on the other side of our car and he actually threw the heavy glass pane into the water outside. "Hey, let them go look for it in Lake Ontario," he huffed.

But since we could now look out the windows on either side of the car, we could see that the same manner of dinghy-driven rescue missions were taking place at several other locations alongside the train.

By around 11 p.m., though, the unspoken question was on everyone's face: How long is this going to take? One of my fellow passengers, a truly good guy named David, calculated that at the rate of four or five passengers per boat, we would all be off the train sometime mid-week.

Meanwhile, over and over, came the GO announcements that emergency evacuation was underway. And then, miracle of miracles, the rain outside lessened and the water on our middle-level car started to get lower, almost imperceptibly at first.

By 11:30 p.m., the water was low enough for people to start putting their shoes on again. By midnight, the water on the lower level was only knee-deep and dropping quickly.

At this point, the lower level was still soggy and muddy but people were able to use the washrooms, if they dared. The green fluid in the toilets had flooded out and mixed with the rain water leaving each washroom a muddy, disgusting mess. Still, when you gotta go, and so forth.

The water levels, both outside the train and in, just kept dropping at a remarkably rapid rate. Shortly before 1 a.m., the same GO official made the announcement that everyone should make their way to the front car of the train, which we did, stumbling occasionally along the way, since the power was out in some cars.

In one car near the front of the train, the window had obviously been kicked out, and there were tiny glass cubes scattered on the seats.

And so we walked all the way to the front of the train, disembarked and walked another two or three kilometres along the adjacent railway tracks. The police had placed dozens of small flares along the route to light the way.

Eventually the entire group came out to an eerily quiet Bayview Avenue, where cops and other emergency personnel handed out bottles of water and various snack items to passengers. People ravenously wolfed down Ritz crackers and Sweet Marie chocolate bars.

As befits any proper disaster, the Red Cross had arrived and a dozen or so volunteers were circulating among the bedraggled, exhausted passengers, offering blankets. I pointed out to one helpful volunteer that it was very warm outside. She replied, "For a souvenir?" I took the blanket.

And while we waited for the buses that would eventually take us to our destination, a realization slowly dawned upon most of the group: The entire purpose of this particular rescue operation was to keep us calm. For all the drama and flashing lights, we had simply walked off the train.

On the long and mostly silent bus ride home, I talked with my seatmate, an Englishman who seemed strangely amused by the events of the past seven-and-a-half hours. I asked him if he wasn't a little concerned when the water was rising inside the train.

"Sure, I was a bit worried," he said. "But I talked to my wife and she knew I was safe. And my kids were watching it on TV and think I'm some kind of bloody hero. I've lived here 20 years and I finally have a story I can tell my grand kids."

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