Marcel Belisle, Outstanding Citizen
A few minutes of heroism brought this taxi driver three years of grief
The morning of Wednesday, February 21, 1973, was cold and clear in Montreal. Shortly before 9:30, taxi driver Marcel Belisle, 36, was cruising down St. Urbain Street, keeping a sharp eye out for customers.
At the corner of Duluth Avenue, he noticed a tractor-trailer moving alongside of him. Paying no attention, he drove as far as St. Cuthbert Street, only to find the huge vehicle abreast of him again, this time blocking his view on the left. He glanced up at its cab — and couldn’t believe his eyes. There was no driver!
Belisle sped ahead of the phantom truck, stopped his car in the middle of the road, and leaped behind the wheel of the enormous vehicle as it passed.
To his horror, Belisle discovered that he couldn’t stop the truck. The air brakes wouldn’t work, neither would the emergency brake. Frantically he tried to switch the gears into neutral; they were stuck in drive. He turned off the ignition. But the huge truck, 48 tons with its load of 31 crates of mirrors, continued to lumber down the gently sloping street.
Suddenly the slope was steeper; now Belisle was rolling along between 40 and 50 miles an hour. Desperately he swung the vehicle as hard as he could onto a rapidly emptying patch of sidewalk beside Hotel-Dieu Hospital, scraping the thick stone wall of the ancient building.
Still the truck was moving, bearing down on the next cross street, busy Pine Avenue. The street was full of traffic: men, women, children, and cars. Noticing that the light was green, Belisle had but one thought: I’ve got to get across before the light changes. Uprooting a lamp post on its unstoppable dash, the truck shot across the intersection the instant the light changed.
As it sped on toward the heart of the city, Belisle realized there was only one hope of stopping it before somebody was killed: he had to cut its speed and find a level place where he could turn in. Like a hockey player throwing body checks, the big vehicle slammed into a car, damaging it badly. It then hit a large supermarket truck, forcing it into another car. Still unable to stop, the runaway mastodon, its front already twisted into a heap of scrap, hit a fourth, then a fifth car. Finally, having managed to cut his speed in half by these maneuvers, Belisle spotted a parking lot on the other side of Pine Avenue. He turned sharply to the right and headed for an empty area behind the lots chain link fence. Just as he was crunching to a halt on the parking-lot fence, he turned over yet another car, bringing the number of vehicles damaged to a total of six.
Truck driver Roland Levesque, who had observed the drama and had been following Belisle’s erratic course in his own vehicle, was the first to reach him. Despite fears that the vehicle would catch fire, he tore open the right-hand door and found the brave cabbie wedged between the seat and the wheel. Belisle was conscious — but bleeding profusely.
The first policeman to reach Belisle told him that a man had one chance in a million to do what he did and come out alive. Replied Belisle: “I was thinking of all the people who could have been run over”
Indeed, as he lay on a stretcher in the parking lot, Belisle had his first chance to think about what he had done. He had reacted instinctively. He hadn’t even wondered why the truck was moving without a driver. He had just thought of getting aboard and stopping it. Now he heard voices around him talking about it. The truck, a 1965 Mack, had been parked in front of the White Mirror and Glass Company on St. Urbain Street. The driver had left the motor running while making a delivery. He had put the emergency brake on, but it had apparently failed.
Belisle was taken to Hotel-Dieu, where he was found to have a fractured pelvis and wounds requiring twelve stitches on the thumb of his right hand, eight above the left eye, and two at the corner of his mouth, and to have lost two teeth. Shortly after his admittance, two policemen arrived and proceeded to draw up a report against him. He was actually accused of having stolen the truck!
Resting later in a private room, he realized that it was 1:30 and he had not yet phoned his wife. He was in the habit of calling her four or five times a day, for Joce- lyne Belisle, at 33, was doubly handicapped: she had heart trouble, and had lost a leg following an accident.
So he called. Before he could say much, she greeted him with the news that a courageous taxi driver had stopped a runaway truck; “the radio said he was hovering between life and death.”
“Honey,” Marcel Belisle gently interrupted. “That taxi driver. It was me. But don’t get upset. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I can’t believe it! Are you going back to work? You won’t go, will you?”
“Tm coming home, Jocelyne,” he promised.
When he hung up, Marcel decided to go home although he had not yet had the blood transfusion that the doctors had ordered. With his good left hand he slipped his shirt on, then his bloodstained sweater and pants, and finally his shoes, which he couldn’t lace, and his boots. Only one nurse, who tried in vain to stop him, saw him as he dragged himself along a corridor to the front door.
But as he walked out the door and made his way painfully down the steps, he was surprised by several people who had been waiting for a chance to congratulate him. He smiled, accepted their greetings, and moved as quickly as he could to his taxicab, which the police had brought to the hospital’s parking lot. Dog-tired and aching, he managed to drive 15 miles to his home in Laval, where his wife and their two daughters, Joanne and Chantal, were waiting for him.
Belisle couldn’t work —his injuries were too severe —but he didn’t worry much at the start. After all, somebody representing the owners of the runaway truck had called to promise that their insurance would cover him. Within a few days, however, he was in difficulty. When he called the truck company to ask for a paltry $10 advance on his indemnity, a voice on the line told him: “My dear fellow, we have to wait for the insurance settlement. I don’t want to get mixed up in it.”
When an insurance representative did come to Belisle, it was to tell him that “he had no business getting mixed up in this; the truck would have stopped on its own” However, the agent offered Belisle $500, as compensation for his trouble.
“That takes the cake!” Belisle cried. Humiliated, and made to feel that he was somehow to blame for having risked his life to save others, he turned down “this charity.”
Because of his money problems, the newspapers kept up their interest in Belisle’s story. The insurance company decided to raise its offer to $2300. But that would be it. “Take it or leave it,” the cabbie was told.
The alternative was the costly business of going to court, and the outcome would be doubtful. An investigation had revealed some defects in the truck, but none so serious that the owners would have been required to take it off the road; there was no question of criminal negligence. Ironically, Belisle was told that if he had been hit by the truck instead of leaping into it to try to stop it, he might have had a claim against them. Since the insurer was now offering enough money to tide him over for the moment, he decided to take it and sign a release.
Happily, the lack of generosity on the part of those who benefited from Belisle’s courageous act was partly offset by public concern about him. Many individuals were moved and sent him donations of $2, $5 or $10. The total came to nearly $300. Deeply appreciative, Belisle nevertheless felt despondent. He had always been able to support his family.
In another newspaper interview, a month after the accident, Belisle expressed his gratitude and announced that he was able to resume his job and life was normal again. But it wasn’t so. Five months of treatment and convalescence lay ahead before he could take to the road again. And during those months he wasn’t eligible for unemployment insurance, nor could he get workmens compensation — because his exploit in stopping the truck had nothing to do with his work.
The only solution was to go into debt. And he did, in order to provide for his family and meet the mortgage payments until he was working again. When he finally did get back behind the wheel of his cab in August 1973, he worked relentlessly for 1 5 hours a day, seven days a week, to try to keep himself afloat. He was unable, however, to make much of a dent in his debts which, with interest, now totaled some $7000.
Many months went by before Marcel Belisle was in the newspapers again. It happened on December 13, 1974, when he went to Ottawa to receive the Star of Courage from Governor-General Jules Leger. The citation, read during an imposing investiture ceremony, spoke of “an act of conspicuous courage performed in circumstances of great peril.” From now on, Marcel Belisle had the right to add the letters S.C. after his signature.
The awards continued. In 1976 the Montreal Citizenship Council, representing 64 associations, honored him with its title of Outstanding Citizen. On May 15, accompanied by his family, he was honored at an official dinner in the Mount Royal Chalet, where 600 invited guests gave him a standing ovation.
“I was very calm,” says Belisle, “until I saw everybody standing up and cheering. Then I felt my legs shaking. But I was deeply grateful to them all, and it made me forget my troubles for the moment.”
Troubles he had. But among those stirred by the occasion was radio commentator Neil McKenty of station CJAD, who thought society owed a debt to Belisle that it had not repaid. Determined to relieve Belisle once and for all of the financial problems he had incurred by stopping the truck and injuring himself, McKenty launched a broadcast appeal for $7000—a sum that would enable Belisle to get out of debt and lead a reasonably normal life.
On the evening of Monday, May 17, hundreds of listeners responded generously to McKenty s special broadcast. In the space of three hours, $10,000 was subscribed. For the next three weeks, checks kept coming in to the radio station, reaching a total of $11,700.
Belisle caught the broadcast when he stopped in at his neighborhood garage. He immediately called Jocelyne to tell her the news, but she had already been notified by the station and seemed quite overcome. Worried about her heart condition, Marcel hurried home and drove her to the hospital. While waiting in the emergency department, he called CJAD to inform McKenty of the poignant turn of events and to thank the listeners, jocelyne recovered and together, their financial burdens somewhat lightened, they operate a small grocery next door to their home. Marcel also continues to drive his cab, while seeking a different job which would allow him to spend more time with his family.
Marcel’s ordeal will pay off ultimately in better protection for other good Samaritans. His case spurred the Montreal Citizenship Council to present a report to the Quebec justice department advocating the indemnification of persons injured in the execution of heroic deeds, in the same way that victims of criminal acts are compensated. Such protection is already law in most European countries, as well as the provinces of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Alberta.
In any event, Marcel believes he could not have behaved otherwise on that cold morning four years ago. He recalls one time, not long after the accident, when his wife was crying; she remarked how much easier life had been “before.”
“What would you have done if you had seen all those people in danger?” he asked her.
“I’d have run to help them,” she sobbed.
“That’s what I did,” he explained simply.
Reader’s Digest March 1977
Click below to hear how Neil started the fund-raising on CJAD.