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Javier Abelardo Alba, one of the three Peruvian immigrants workers who survived a car accident early February in rural Ontario talks during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the London Ontario retirement home where he is recovering from his injuries, March 7, 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Javier Abelardo Alba, one of the three Peruvian immigrants workers who survived a car accident early February in rural Ontario talks during an interview with The Globe and Mail at the London Ontario retirement home where he is recovering from his injuries, March 7, 2012. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Migrant workers recall the terror of February night Add to ...

Their eyes met and locked in the last panicked moments, as the hope of averting disaster mixed with the dread of what was to come.

Juan Ariza cannot get the memory loop out of his head. On Feb. 6, at the end of his first day of work at a chicken farm in southwestern Ontario, the Peruvian migrant worker looked out the side window of the van he was riding in and beheld a Freightliner truck careering toward him.

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In those final few seconds, mute, he looked straight into the eyes of truck driver Chris Fulton.

“I saw his face and he looked at me,” Mr. Ariza recalled on Wednesday. “He was scared. I was scared.”

And then, he recalled with clarity, Mr. Fulton did something Mr. Ariza will not soon forget: He pulled his steering wheel to the right, avoiding Mr. Ariza, who was sitting in the van’s back row of seats. The move likely spared his life.

Mr. Fulton, a married transport worker from London, Ont., was killed. So were 10 migrant workers who were in the van that the 38-year-old Mr. Fulton could not avoid after it went through a stop sign.

The two men’s lives intersected on a quiet rural road, strangers from different worlds. But now, as Mr. Ariza struggles to recover in an Ontario retirement home, he feels a bond with Mr. Fulton that tugs at his conscience.

“To me, he was a hero,” said the father of a six-year-old boy. “When he turned his steering wheel, he saved my life.”

He said he would like to pay his respects to Mr. Fulton and visit his grave. “I want to thank his wife – tell her what he did. It hurts me very much that he died as he tried to save us.”

He and two other men survived the collision, but the crash has compromised their health, their financial dreams and their futures in Canada. All three came to Canada on visas to work at MARC Poultry Vaccination Services.

Mr. Ariza, 35, suffered a broken hand and ribs and a smashed leg, which is still swaddled in bandages. Javier Alba Medina, 38, who was sitting next to Mr. Ariza, is recovering from a fractured pelvis and ribs, as well as bruised lungs. Both rely on walkers and wheelchairs to move around the London facility where they are being housed.

The third survivor, 26-year-old Edgar Sulla Puma, is in a coma in Hamilton General Hospital with serious head injuries. He is breathing on his own.

Mr. Ariza and Mr. Alba, who are recovering in adjoining rooms, were joined recently by their wives and other family members, whose travel expenses were paid for by the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board. The WSIB is also covering the men’s health-care costs and 85 per cent of their net salaries, which will continue until they can return to work.

Still, like others who are joining the swelling ranks of Canada’s temporary migrant-worker population, the extent of the men’s rights is unclear. Their visas from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, stapled to a page inside their Peruvian passports, say the men are not authorized to work “in any occupation” or at “any location” other than the MARC poultry operation.

Both men say that, even as their bodies recover, they remain emotionally scarred by the crash.

“I’m afraid of cars, afraid of roads. I’m scared to get back into a van. I feel I won’t be so lucky next time,” Mr. Alba said. “The only thing I feel is confused. I don’t know my rights in Canada.”

Mr. Alba, who was joined Feb. 1 by his wife, Giovanna, and their son, Sulman, 14, fears for his future. The couple also has a baby in the care of the child’s grandmother in Peru.

“I worry if I can’t return to the same job, they will deport me,” Mr. Alba said. “But I can’t go back to my country with nothing, with my pelvis and ribs broken and my hands empty.”

The men suffer from nightmares. For both, tears come as easily as the questions about why they survived while the others perished.

“That I survived is a miracle,” Mr. Alba said. “But the men who died were my friends. They came to Canada for the same reason I did. I will miss them.”

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