Warning lights, screaming commuters failed to halt Ottawa crash

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

A female bus passenger is led away to a waiting ambulance. A Via Rail train collided with an Ottawa OC Transpo bus during this morning rush hour September 18, 2013 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Lights at a level crossing were flashing and passengers were screaming but the driver of an Ottawa city bus appeared oblivious to the warnings until it was too late to stop his double-decker vehicle from smashing into a Via train, killing at least six people including himself.

From his seat on the upper level of the bus, Steve Watton could not see the man behind the steering wheel when the crash occurred Wednesday in Ottawa’s west end. But he certainly could see the train heading his way.

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“One of the passengers noticed that the bus driver wasn’t slowing down,” said Mr. Watton after being attended to by paramedics. “He started to scream from the lower level. Nothing happened. And the screams got louder. Three or four people started screaming ‘Hey, hey, hey! Pay attention!’ And, all of a sudden, [the driver] woke up … and he saw the train coming and he slammed on the brakes.”

But it was too late. The bus nudged onto the tracks and the train slammed into it. The front left side of the vehicle was sheared off and some of the passengers in the top front rows were sent flying into the air.

The collision occurred at the end of the morning rush hour near a transit station that is shared by the city and Via Rail. It sits between a corn field and the suburb of Barrhaven, one of several bedroom communities that has sprung up around the national capital on what was farmland not many years ago.

The crash is sparking new questions about the safety of level crossings, especially in populated areas. The federal government proposed draft regulations last year that would require rail companies to meet new sight-line requirements, upgrade existing crossings and reduce train speed – but ran into opposition from the rail industry and municipalities.

As it left the station, the Route 76 bus was full, with passengers filling seats and standing along its lower deck. It was to travel toward downtown on a dedicated bus route parallel to Woodroffe Avenue, one of Ottawa’s main north-south corridors. But it didn’t get past the first big turn.

Passenger Lorraine Plante saw the disaster unfold. “I was sitting on the lower level of the bus. I could clearly see that the cars had stopped on Woodroffe for the flashing lights; the train did have the flashing lights on,” said Ms. Plante, her voice quivering.

Up ahead, the lights at the crossing were also flashing, she said. “The next thing I knew, I saw the barriers going down and this guy [the driver] accelerated. 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.”

In addition to the dead, the crash injured 34 people. Eleven were originally said to be in critical condition but a spokesman for the city’s paramedic service said some had improved throughout the day. Via officials said none of the 100 people on board the train were hurt.

Motorist Cory Hodgins, 43, was stopped at the train crossing, roughly a dozen cars back, when the bus struck the train. He was among those to run to the scene. He rounded the left side of the bus, coming around to where the driver would sit. He recalls seeing five, six or seven bodies that had been flung as far as 12 feet from the bus. Some were not moving.

“I rounded that corner and saw the bodies. It was a mess. Mangled. We offered assistance to the ones that were still talking,” Mr. Hodgins said. He started yelling, “Doctors, nurses!” A young lifeguard and others stepped forward, focusing on the less severe injuries, he said.

“There were a couple people that were helping. I think the ones that were down and visibly out of the way, there’s not too much you could do for them. No one really attended to them. You move to the ones you’re able to save and help, you just reassure them and give them your name,” he said.

Emergency crews ferried injured people to hospital, while others waited for family on scene. The Via train was unloaded and passengers dragged their luggage to waiting coach buses.

The bus was carrying a regular group of commuters who knew each other by sight, even if they did not know each others’ names. Once the survivors took a check of their own situation, they started looking around for their neighbours and assisting the wounded. Paramedics arrived on the scene six minutes after the impact.

The driver was identified as Dave Woodard, 45, but authorities would not confirm the names of the other victims late Wednesday. Loan records show Mr. Woodard lived in a second-floor unit with Therese Woodard, who had turned 50 on Tuesday.

A man working at the complex said they were a “good family” who lived there for more than 20 years. 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.

Craig Watson, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279, which represents all OC Transpo drivers, described the driver, who has been with OC Transpo for almost 10 years, as being “a really nice guy” who had a “good record.”

He also said 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.”

Investigators say their key focus will be examining the bus’s black box, which could include its speed and whether brakes were applied – some passengers said they were, while others said they weren’t sure.

The scope of the crash shook the capital city. Some Ottawa Senators joined politicians of all stripes in offering condolences. Mayor Jim Watson told reporters: “We’ve lost six of our neighbours, people who started off this bright sunny day, as we all did, heading from their homes and loved ones to go about their daily lives.”

With reports from Ann Hui and Rick Cash