OTTAWA – Passengers aboard a double-decker city bus screamed “Stop! Stop!” as the driver plowed through a flashing level crossing and into a passing Via Rail train Wednesday morning, killing at least six people and injuring many more.
The horrific collision sheared off the front of the bus and knocked the Via locomotive and one of four passenger cars off the tracks.
Six people were killed, one of them the bus driver, while several area hospitals were flooded with 30 patients, including 10 in critical condition.
“People started screaming, ‘Stop! Stop!’ because they could see the train coming down the track,” said Carleton University student Tanner Trepanier, who was in the upper level of the new, double-decker OC Transpo bus.
Both levels of the front end of the bus, extending back to the driver’s seat, were ripped off by the impact.
“There was a lot of screaming, but then people were actually relatively calm, considering the situation,” Trepanier said of the aftermath.
Alex Begin, on his way to his job in downtown Ottawa, was midway back on the lower level of the bus and said the driver hit the brakes only after passengers started yelling warnings.
“Oh yeah, we went right through the (safety) barrier,” said Begin, who was at a loss to explain the driver’s apparent lapse of concentration.
“I don’t know, too early in the morning? He just wasn’t fully conscious or something,” said Begin. “Because until people started yelling, I guess he didn’t even realize what was going down.”
Romi Gupta, a 40-year-old downtown office worker, boarded what she called the “overfull” bus at its last stop before the crash.
“The driver was OK, I got in a minute before and I said hello to him and he was fine,” said Gupta.
She, too, could see through the bus windows that the train was coming.
“The bus was too fast I find, he could not put the brakes on.”
The head of the transit union local confirmed the driver was among the dead.
“It looks like a bomb went off almost,” Craig Watson of the Amalgamated Transit Union told the CBC after visiting the scene.
The bus was on a dedicated transit line that runs parallel to a busy commuter artery just east of a suburban Via Rail station, about 10 kilometres west of Parliament Hill.
Witnesses on the ground said the northbound bus simply didn’t stop, despite flashing lights and lowered safety barriers warning of the westbound train which had already stopped commuter traffic nearby.
“Boom! It went into the train like that,” said Pascal Lolgis, who watched the bus smash through a safety barrier.
“He just didn’t stop. He just keep going like that. Then he got hit.”
Another witness, Mark Cogan, also said the safety barrier was down.
“I just thought maybe there’s a side way around or something but instantly he just … he smoked the train,” said Cogan. “He went through the guard rail and just hammered the train and then it was just mayhem.”
A broken safety barrier was visible under the bus carriage.
The Via locomotive and one of four passenger cars could be seen resting askew on the tracks, but Via officials said there were no injuries among the more than 100 passengers aboard. The company suspended its Ottawa-Toronto service as a result of the crash.
Rescue crews swarmed over the mangled bus wreckage as ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles flooded the scene, rushing the injured to area hospitals.
“This is one of the worst events we have seen in the city or at this hospital; the tragic injury and loss of life to people,” said Dr. Andrew Falconer of the Queensway-Carleton Hospital.
“It is overwhelming to imagine the suffering that is going on. We have had other mass casualties (events), but not for many years. This one is definitely tragic.”
The accident occurred just before 9 a.m. and a number of students from Algonquin College and Carleton University were aboard the bus.
A trauma centre for worried families was set up at a nearby sports complex; by midday, fearful-looking people were arriving in small groups.
Lee Tran, however, had to leave without learning the fate of a family member who he said routinely rides that same bus daily to Carleton University.
“We just have to wait,” Tran said.
Abera Feyissa, meanwhile, received good news. His Grade 12 son was on the bus and on his way to his job downtown. Feyissa managed to reach his son by cellphone at a local hospital, unhurt.
“It’s a shock,” Feyissa said as a police officer guided him to his car.
Another woman arrived with several teenagers in tow, wiping her eyes. She wouldn’t talk, but nodded when asked if she had a loved one on the bus.
“It is a tragic morning in the nation’s capital, as a devastating accident between a bus and train has caused injury and death,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.
“On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I extend our thoughts and prayers to all those affected by this tragedy.”
The Transportation Safety Board dispatched 11 investigators to the scene to start what a senior board official said will be a very complex job that could take months.
Jean Laporte, the board’s chief operating officer, said the team will be thorough.
“We are documenting, photographing the wreckage and the accident site,” he said. “We will be assessing the crossing, it’s design and the sight lines, we’ll be checking the warning systems and the gates at the crossing to ensure they were functioning correctly.
“We’ll be retrieving, downloading and examining the data from the locomotive event recorder as well as from other recording devices that might be available.”
With files from Murray Brewster, John Ward, Jennifer Ditchburn and Steve Rennie