The following article of mine appeared in the Spring-Summer 2006 issue of Spacing Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
On Tuesday, March 26, 1985 at 4 p.m., a constable working in the RCMP Toronto headquarters on Jarvis Street opened a letter that would spark a week of agitation and fear throughout Toronto.
The letter demanded that Rafi Panos Titizian, Kevorak Marachelian and Ohannes Noubarian be placed on a plane to Beirut by 10:30 a.m. that Friday, or else three bombs would be detonated on the Toronto subway during next Monday’s afternoon rush-hour.
During the early to mid 1980s, Armenian terrorism was on the rise. Armenians everywhere had longstanding grievances with Turkey, who had slaughtered up to 1.5 million Armenians through 1915. The three individuals named in the letter had been involved in storming the Turkish embassy in Ottawa, taking hostages and shooting dead a security guard before being captured, led away in handcuffs, and charged with first degree murder.
The letter claimed to be from the radical group, the “Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Our Homeland.” They were known to police and had conducted similar attacks in France and Switzerland. Moreover, a large quantity of explosives had been stolen from Montreal earlier that month. The constable knew he had to take the matter seriously. The letter was forwarded to assistant RCMP commissioner Ralph Culligan.
Ralph Culligan contacted Metro Police Chief Jack Marks, OPP Commissioner Archie Ferguson and, in Ottawa, Solicitor-General Elmer MacKay. Together, they agreed to set up a command centre to co-ordinate a massive security sweep of Metropolitan Toronto. They decided not to inform the public.
Security was beefed up in Ottawa, at Queen’s Park, and in other government buildings. Toronto police officers donned TTC uniforms and began searching subway trains for bombs. Ontario Premier Frank Miller was notified of the threat early Wednesday and stayed in close contact with Elmer MacKay and deputy prime minister Erik Nielsen throughout the operation. Metro Chairman Dennis Flynn was notified later that morning. Toronto Mayor Art Eggleton learnt about it Thursday afternoon.
Officials have claimed that they had intended to alert the public to the threat after the 10:30 a.m. Friday deadline had passed to release the three individuals in custody, but then Friday morning someone phoned the CBC in Ottawa and claimed that a bomb was set to explode at Union Station, at precisely the time of the deadline.
The bomb disposal units sweeping the TTC converged on Union Station but found nothing. By now the media was asking questions. They could see the security measures going up and the high-level meetings taking place. The taskforce called a press conference for 1 p.m. and issued a public alert.
Police told riders to remain calm, but vigilant. The public were asked to watch for suspicious vehicles, people or packages near transit vehicles or on TTC property. Leave was cancelled for members of the Metro police force and the subway was shut down three hours early on Sunday so it could be swept for explosives. All of the fire departments in Metro, as well as the ambulance service, police, hospitals, health departments, Bell Canada and Ontario Hydro put their emergency plans into action. Lockers were closed and garbage cans were sealed off. On Monday morning, defiant but nervous, Torontonians went to work.
It was estimated that the TTC served 500,000 riders fewer than usual that Monday. Traffic was heavier on the roads, and some schools reported that classes were half full. However, all scheduled TTC employees reported for duty.
Riders were alternately stoic or resolved. Jim Palmer, interviewed by the Toronto Star, wore a T-shirt bearing the words, “I rode the TTC and survived.” Service was disrupted by a number of false alarms and hoaxes. Briefcases left behind were often doused by water cannons, or detonated. That week, service was stopped and stations evacuated due to an alarm clock wired to an empty oil can; an abandoned suitcase full of clothes; a portable radio; and an attache case containing a tape recorder, a South American flute and a newspaper.
There were also a number of bomb threats called into local radio and television stations. One call to CFTO-TV resulted in one Rodney Allen being arrested and charged with mischief, but most other callers were not caught.
The terrorists did not strike. By Wednesday, the TTC reported that ridership had returned to pre-incident levels. By Friday, the police were stepping down their surveillance. The lockers were reopened and the garbage cans were unsealed.
Members of Toronto’s 7,500 strong Armenian community worried over the ill-will the incident had raised. Some claimed that the threats were the work of Turkish interests intent on discrediting the Armenian groups. Turkish groups worried over the attention to the 1915 genocide the incident raised. The public settled gradually settled back into its normal routine. Around the world, surveillance and other measures diminished the threat from Armenian fringe groups.
The individuals behind the bomb threat were never caught. The three men involved in the attack on the Turkish embassy in Ottawa are still in prison.
The 1985 incident wasn’t the first act of terrorism against the Toronto subway. The earlier one, involving real explosives, began on May 13, 1968, when, without warning, a bomb blew up a switch near the Old Mill subway station. The public wouldn’t hear about the attack for another eleven days.
The individual behind the attack - local media would nickname him the “Mad Bomber,” - called TTC Chairman Ralph Day on the day after the bombing. He demanded $250,000 and threatened more attacks. The threats were repeated the following day.
The police tried to trap the bomber by having Day himself, wired for sound, proceed with a black satchel to the Bloor/Yonge intersection. Upon arrival, Day received a phone call and was told to leave the satchel and walk away. The police tensed, only to be frustrated when a uniformed officer, unaware of the sting, happened by and ran after Day with the case he had “forgotten.”
The following day, at around 11:00 p.m., a washroom at the Grey Coach bus station at Queen Street and Roncesvalles exploded. An hour later, a passenger using the public washroom at Eglinton station was asked by someone in the next cubicle if he was “going to be long.” Emerging, he saw a bundle of dynamite with a burning fuse and ran for his life. The bomb exploded a moment later.
On Friday, May 24, the Globe and Mail reported that Police Chief James Mackey had offered a $5,000 reward for the bomber, and released a composite sketch. All spare and reserve officers were pressed into service. For the next three weeks, every subway station was guarded day and night. The TTC ran empty trains ahead of scheduled trains to protect passengers from blasts.
Rider Ed Treijs remembers those days: “There was heavy police presence on the platforms. The police would stroll by the garbage cans and shine their big cop flashlights into the cans. Fun job. I remember the front couple of cars in trains were almost deserted for a while. No one wanted to be at the front of the train in case a train-triggered bomb was somewhere on the tracks.”
Ralph Day received no more threats. However, the Toronto Telegram received a call on May 24 from someone who claimed he’d found “a big bundle of dynamite” behind the Eastern High School of Commerce. Photographer Norm Betts and a reporter went to the school to investigate.
Upon arrival, they found two men in a green Chrysler that sped away. They found nothing on the school grounds but, upon returning, found that the dynamite had been placed on the hood of their car. Betts states he caught sight of the green Chrysler again, but it sped off before he could snap a picture of its license plate.
Earl Keys was arrested as a suspect in the case later that month. He had a prior record for extortion, but insisted he had nothing to do with the bombings. Despite this, he pleaded guilty to the charge and was remanded to a mental institution for examination before sentencing. A week later he escaped, and was never seen again.
There are a few points I find particularly interesting about this recounting of events. First of all was the authorities’ decision not to inform the public. I could see a few people being a little upset to learn about the serious bomb threat on the Friday before it was supposed to happen, after the investigation had been in progress for so long. I’m sure the authorities were following procedure and did not want to cause a panic, but it is also interesting to see how un-panicked the public seemed to be during the threat. Yes, there was a serious drop in ridership on the TTC on the date that the bombing was supposed to take place, but most people still went to work. By Wednesday, ridership was back to normal and, by Friday, the police were ramping back their surveillance. The public reaction was clearly more resolved and less panicked than the local media of the day.
Would the reaction have been different if a bomb had gone off? Very likely. But it’s also interesting to see that bombs did go off in 1968, but public behaviour did not radically change. And I suspect that it is because most people understand that you can’t live your life in fear all the time.
As hard as the authorities worked in 1985 to follow up this threat and nullify the activity of this terrorist group, the 1968 bombings show that a single madman can still cause disruption, and successful terrorist attacks elsewhere show that it’s near impossible to stop a determined individual who isn’t afraid to die. It’s impossible to guarantee our own safety 100% of the day, every day of the week, every week of your life. But for most of the people reading this blog, for most of your life, you will be safe and happy.
So, why worry about that remnant bit of fear of something you cannot control? Yes, you can lock your front doors at night without changing who you are, and you can keep a lookout for suspicious packages, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about those who would lock themselves in their home and go out as little as once a week or less; who would trade away civil liberties in the name of security and selectively target identifiable ethnic or religious groups for greater scrutiny.
I think that those who do that end up with a life that isn’t as full as those who accept the risks and move forward regardless, and I think that applies to the health of our democracies as well. Fear is a reasonable reaction, but only in small doses. You can’t live your lives in fear. Ultimately, you hurt yourself, you strike a blow for those who want you to live in fear, and you don’t end up giving yourself much in the way of real protection.
Life is full of risk. Nothing changes that. I have a lovely wife and two daughters, and yes I’m afraid to lose that someday. But I didn’t get where I am today by being ruled by my fears. Who knows where I’ll be tomorrow if I clasp the opportunities that present themselves to me, in spite of the risks. So I’ll keep taking public transit. I’ll keep stepping out the door. I’ll keep engaging people in conversation. I’ll keep living.
And I’ll be happy until the day I die.