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Ontario Provincial Police and emergency crews investigate a motor vehicle accident that killed 11 people near Hampstead, Ont., on Feb. 6, 2012. (DAVE CHIDLEY/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
Ontario Provincial Police and emergency crews investigate a motor vehicle accident that killed 11 people near Hampstead, Ont., on Feb. 6, 2012. (DAVE CHIDLEY/Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Migrant community mourns in disbelief after Ontario crash Add to ...

On Sunday night, Juan Castillo was at his home in Kitchener watching the Super Bowl with his 15-year-old stepson.

Less than 24 hours later, on his way home from his job vaccinating chickens at a poultry farm, the Nicaragua native met his death along with nine co-workers and the driver of the flatbed truck that crashed into their van. The calamity, said to be one of the worst traffic accidents in the province’s history, left families in tears from southwestern Ontario to Lima, Peru.

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At a sombre gathering Tuesday night, about 30 people packed into a Kitchener home to offer food and condolences to Mr. Castillo’s family.

“We heard they were sent to the hospital. That’s when we heard that he didn’t make it,” said Alexis Sanchez, who said his father was a passenger in the van and that the others were Peruvian nationals.

Mr. Castillo had spent 20 years in Canada working in the local poultry industry, his stepson said. “He was an honest person, a hard worker.”

Similar mourning scenes were repeated elsewhere in the region, as people congregated in disbelief and sadness. Peruvian authorities have said that all 10 people who died in the van were from Peru, but Mr. Castillo’s family, in Kitchener, said he is from Malpaisillo, Nicaragua.

The Peruvian newspaper La Republica reported on Tuesday that nine of the ten victims in the van were Peruvian and belonged to the same family.

Three Peruvian migrant workers who were travelling in the same passenger van are in serious or critical condition in hospital.

Late Monday afternoon, the workers had finished a long day’s work at Hampstead Poultry northeast of Stratford, boarded a van and driven west. Just a few hundred metres from the farm, their 15-seat van rolled into an intersection and into the path of an oncoming truck.

The southbound flatbed was driven by Christopher Fulton, a 38-year-old London man. An owner-operator of the truck on behalf of Brampton-based Speedy Transport since 2006, Mr. Fulton was celebrating his 11th wedding anniversary that very day.

Why the two collided is still unclear – Mr. Fulton’s boss says police told him the van ran the intersection’s stop sign, but in official pronouncements, authorities have been more circumspect. Mr. Fulton, who did not have a stop sign, plowed into the side of the van. The force of the crash sent the van flying across a lawn; it smashed into the side of a blue, clapboard farmhouse. The truck skidded across the grass, tearing up chunks of earth, coming to rest on its side. Its side shorn off, the van spilled debris onto the ground.

The sound echoed through Hampstead, a hamlet of a half-dozen farmhouses and a construction business arranged around the crossroads.

Ten of the 13 in the van died at the scene; three others were taken to hospital in critical condition. Edgar Sulla-Puma was airlifted to Hamilton; Javier Abelardo Aldo Medina and Juan Jose Ariza were taken by ambulance to hospital in Stratford. Mr. Abelardo Aldo Medina was later transferred to London. Mr. Fulton also died at the site of the crash.

The accident is shining a spotlight on the tens of thousands of people who arrive in the country each year to help grow Canada’s food, typically for very low pay.

Among the farm workers who died Monday night was Enrique Arturo Arenaza Leon, who moved to Canada two years ago. At the time, friends teased the Peruvian about adapting to the chilly northern weather. “How do you sleep?” one posted on his Facebook wall after seeing a photo of Mr. Leon in a white, puffy jacket, standing beside a snow-covered parking lot.

The 48-year-old migrant worker from Lima delighted in showing off his new Canadian life, posting photos of himself shopping with friends, making meals and enjoying a New Year’s Eve out at a local bar.

Mr. Leon listed his workplace as Marc Poultry on his Facebook page. Mr. Castillo’s family said he worked for the same company. One of the principals behind the company, at one time, was a Peruvian immigrant named Alex Carrion. In 2004, in an eerily similar circumstance in Ontario, Mr. Carrion’s son, Pedro Carrion, was killed when a flatbed truck collided with one of his father’s vans, which was carrying at least eight other workers.

The workers who come from overseas on temporary permits do the sorts of jobs Canadians are unable or unwilling to do. Those who died in Monday’s tragedy were typically bussed from farm to farm and were referred to locally as “chicken-catchers.”

Albert Burgers, at whose farm the workers found themselves that day, praised their work ethic. He had brought them in eight weeks earlier to move chickens around and had them back to perform vaccinations. They started shortly after dawn.

“I knew them as hard-working South American guys. They’re happy. They seemed to like what they do,” he said Tuesday morning outside his farmhouse, on a hill overlooking the crash site. “I still can see all the faces.”

That day, he had 16 workers at his operation – all but one of them men. At the end of the day, 13 piled into the ill-fated van while three others left in another van.

The workers were said to be on a job for Brian’s Poultry, which operates out of a large converted house and several hangar-like buildings – decorated with a large rooster statue – an hour’s drive north of the crash scene in the town of Mildmay. It’s not clear what, if any, the relationship is between Brian’s and Marc.

The owners of Brian’s are husband and wife Brian and Evelyn Herman. Mr. Herman has maintained a high profile among poultry farmers, quoted often in industry publications.

In 2006, he gave a frank assessment of the many risks facing his chicken-catchers in a story published in Ontario Farmer. Among other hazards, he listed rotting wood planks that workers stand on to reach a barn's upper levels, standing on stacks of crates and a lack of safety guards on loading platforms.

Since the crash, he has kept a low profile.

A woman who answered the door at his business's headquarters told reporters the company would not comment.

Two staff members from the Ontario Labour Ministry were at the scene of the accident on Tuesday.

“I think we have more questions than answers right now,” Labour Minister Linda Jeffrey told reporters at Queen’s Park. “At the moment, all we know is it was a terrible accident.”

With reports from Greg McArthur, Jennifer MacMillan and Ryan Dube in Lima.

Follow us on Twitter: @kimmackrael, @adrianmorrow, @colinfreeze

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