Police identify bus driver in Ottawa crash that killed six

OTTAWA AND TORONTO — The Globe and Mail

A man walks past a derailed train holding a young child. Wednesday September 18, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa Police have formally identified the bus driver killed in a tragic crash in Ottawa as 45-year-old Dave Woodard.

Mr. Woodard was among the six people killed Wednesday morning when the double-decker bus he was driving drove through a railway crossing and struck a VIA Rail train. Passengers said Mr. Woodard applied the brakes only at the last moment, and it's unclear why the bus struck the train.

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The driver was said to have nearly 10 years' experience with the OC Transpo transit system. "He was a good employee. Always helpful and with a smile on his face," said Craig Watson, transit union president.

Among the six dead, Mr. Woodard is the only one who had been formally identified by Wednesday evening, 12 hours after the disastrous collision.

Mr. Woodard lived in an low-rise apartment building in an east-Ottawa suburb with his wife and daughter, according to a neighbour and a building employee. They were a "good family" who lived there for over 20 years, the worker said. The wife and daughter were said to not be home Wednesday. "She has just lost a huge part of her life," said the building official, who declined to speak at length about the family.

Family gathered at a relative's home nearby Wednesday evening, and declined comment to a Globe reporter. Financial records show Mr. Woodard lives with Therese Woodard. Ms. Woodard's 50th birthday was on Tuesday, the day before the crash.

Passengers on the rush-hour Ottawa bus yelled “Stop! Stop!” at the vehicle went through a rail crossing and struck the train, which was heading from Montreal to Toronto, just before 8:50 a.m. Wednesday morning. Five were pronounced dead at the scene, while a sixth died in hospital. The crash also injured another 30 people, including 11 who remain in critical condition. When full, the bus holds about 90 people, but it's unclear how many were on board at the time.

The front end of the bus was sheared, crumpling the edges of the metal like foil and the train’s locomotive was pushed off the tracks by the impact.

“The bus driver was not paying any a‎ttention,” said Lorraine Plante, who was sitting on the lower level of the bus at the time of the impact. “‎I could clearly see that the cars had stopped on Woodroffe for the flashing light.”

But when the railway barriers went down‎, the bus driver accelerated into the crossing, said Ms. Plante. “I don’t know whether he wanted to beat the train but he didn’t slow down and a second later, that was it. The impact was there.”

The train ripped through the upper deck on the driver’s side, throwing passengers who were sitting there many metres away, witnesses said. Those who were hurled by the crash were among the dead.

Ajoy Bista was sitt‎ing on the top left, just behind those who were killed. It is a bus he catches every day, and every day the driver must stop for this train, he said.

“But this time my instinct was he wasn’t slowing down. He was speeding,” said Mr. Bista. “There were people yelling ‘stop, stop!’ but it was already too late.” Other witnesses said they didn't think Mr. Woodard was speeding, only that he hadn't slowed for the railway crossing.

“I sit in the front normally because you get a good view. Today, I don’t know what saved me, I just didn’t sit there,” Mr. Bista said. “There is no way I would have survived.”

There were no injuries among the more than 100 passengers aboard the train, Via Rail said in a statement.

Mr. Watson, the union president, said Mr. Woodard had a "good record" and added that it’s too soon to speculate on the cause of the crash, but cautioned against being quick to blame the driver. “We don’t know what, if any issues, may have been happening at the front of the bus,” Mr. Watson said. “There may have been mechanical issues, health issues, the list is endless of what could have caused it.”

Eric Nelson was on the top deck of the bus.

“The scene was just chaotic,” he said. “A lot of people got shaken around in the back, and got injuries just from being shaken around. One guy had a big gash on his knee, and some people got some glass in their eyes.… But the front, anyone sitting in the front three rows, there’s no way they walked out without major injuries there.”

Sonia Morales was standing on the train platform at the station, near the intersection where the crash occurred. She heard the train coming, preparing to board for a trip to Toronto.

“All of the sudden when I turn around, I hear this big bang and the train was already derailed,” said Ms. Morales, who was visiting her mother in the Ottawa area. “Then we saw the bus.”

Ms. Morales said she and others on the platform were shaken by the crash, which left the train derailed just down the tracks.

“I feel shaken, knowing there are people that are dead already,” she said. “Just knowing that families don’t know what happened yet, you know? It’s just a terrible thing that happened today.”

Amy Boughner had just dropped her husband, Joe, at the station when she says she heard a “very loud, strange noise – it sounded like metal hitting something; it sounded strange and bad.”

She turned around and said she saw the train “coming in clearly at an odd angle – something was clearly not right.” Her first fear, she said, was that it might hit the station. Instead, the train gradually slowed to a stop, and only after the fact did she and realize there had already been a collision.

Almost immediately, he said, he heard the sound of sirens.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada said its team of investigators had arrived at the scene. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson later said that Ottawa Police and the Coroner will be looking into what happened.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who have lost loved ones, and who have loved ones who have been injured as well,” Mr. Watson said in a press conference Wednesday morning. The city opened a family reunification centre for those looking for their loved ones, and that all city flags will fly at half-staff to “signify our loss and sadness over the loss of human lives.” The reunification centre shut down Wednesday evening.

TSB investigator Glen Pillon said crews are looking for “event recorders” – black boxes – from both the bus and the train to determine what happened in the moments before the crash.

"Right now, we're just gathering information," Mr. Pillon said around 12:30 p.m. local time.

Collisions at VIA Rail crossings are of particular concern to the TSB, he said, due to the potential for severe casualties to passengers.

"Certainly, this type of investigation is going to get a priority from the Transportation Safety Board. It's something we have been watching," he said.

OC Transpo head John Manconi also expressed his condolences, adding that his staff are “devastated” over the crash.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement Wednesday on the crash, calling it “a tragic morning in the Nation’s Capital.”

“On behalf of all Canadians, Laureen and I extend our thoughts and prayers to all those affected by this tragedy,” he said.

With reports from Bill Curry in Ottawa

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