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Emergency personnel attend to a VIA Rail passenger train that derailed in Burlington Ontario, February 26, 2012. (STRINGER/Matthew Sherwood/Reuters)
Emergency personnel attend to a VIA Rail passenger train that derailed in Burlington Ontario, February 26, 2012. (STRINGER/Matthew Sherwood/Reuters)

Three crew members killed after Via Rail passenger train derails Add to ...

Josh Dykstra had his head buried in his laptop and was thinking about the week ahead at York University when his train car lifted into the air and, for a moment, gravity ceased to exist.

The 20-year-old was in the VIA passenger train when it tilted onto its side and slammed into the ground. Bodies, knapsacks and plastic bottles launched forward, while the railroad car’s roof was partially peeled open by a nearby building.

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“People were airborne, flying two or three rows forward,” said Mr. Dykstra, just hours after Sunday’s train derailment in Burlington, Ont. – a rare passenger train accident that killed three VIA employees and injured 45 passengers.

All three deceased – two engineers and a trainee – were in the locomotive at the front of the train. The next two cars made up the bulk of the carnage, where passengers were trapped inside for as long as an hour while paramedics dealt with priority patients.

Train service on the tracks that carry heavy daily commuter and freight train traffic was disrupted and it’s unknown when service will return to normal.

The locomotive and the five cars went off the tracks at about 3:30 p.m., leaving one car completely on its side in the Aldershot area. In Mr. Dykstra’s car, the first passenger car on Toronto-bound train 92, on its way from Niagara Falls, he said one passenger flew back-first into one of the windows, and an elderly woman gushed blood from a deep cut on her forehead.

How the train managed to slide off the track remains a mystery, said VIA’s chief operating officer John Marginson.

It’s been more than a decade since VIA experienced a fatal derailment, when two engineers died when their train collided with parked freight cars near Thamesville, Ont.

“I’ve been in the railway business for 40 years. You don’t see these too often, thank God,” Mr. Marginson said.

“There’s no question it’s tragic. We’re a relatively small company. We’re very close. We know everybody by name.”

Former VIA engineer Daniel Christie speculated after looking at video from the scene that the collision had something to do with the location on the tracks, just below a signal mast, which works like a traffic light. Below, he said, is where the tracks switch over.

“Something happened at that location,” he said, adding it’s where trains can change direction. “It’s a crucial location.”

In 2008, about 19 freight cars were derailed in an accident eerily close to Sunday's fatal crash. At a press conference, Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring said the 2008 accident took place about 100 metres from Sunday's crash site – but authorities reiterated that they have no evidence the two are connected.

Like almost all of VIA’s passenger trains, this one was a rebuilt model and it had been reconstructed more than a year ago – a duration of time that suggests this was not a factor in the crash, Mr. Marginson said. Worries about a fuel leak were ruled out hours after the crash, he added.

The train’s black box, which contains a precise record of its speed and how all of its instrumentation was working, had yet to be pulled from the wreckage as of late last night, he said.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has launched an investigation. Hours after the crash, spokesman Chris Krepski said two investigators were on the scene and four more were on the way.

“We’re gathering as much information as possible,” he said, noting that would include talking to witnesses and removing the event recorder housed in a box.

Mr. Krepski said the investigation, which will find cause and could make suggestions to avoid similar incidents, will take at least a year.

The most serious injuries were a heart attack, a back fracture and a broken leg, Mr. Marginson said. All of the passengers in the two flipped railway cars were evacuated within 90 minutes of the crash. Firefighters used metal-piercing equipment, as well as ladders to climb through broken windows, to access the victims.

Two Ornge air ambulances were called at about 4 p.m., both arriving roughly 10 minutes later.

The victims were taken to at least four hospitals, with the most serious being taken to Hamilton Health Sciences. For several hours the hospital was placed into “Code Orange,” the response for external disasters.

“It’s not something that happens frequently by any means,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Kramer.

Hospitals and emergency workers from Toronto were involved as well, sending a hospital bus and a superintendent to the scene and taking 10 patients with minor injuries to a hospital in Mississauga.

Deanna Villella, 40, said that in the moment before the train flipped on its side, it felt like the train had switched tracks – except her car just kept drifting sideways.

Realizing the car was about to tip, she reverted to the instructions she had heard so many times on plane rides and stuck her head between her legs. When the car flipped, she held herself in her chair, suspended above the ground, unsure of what had happened. “I just knew I needed to keep my head down,” said Ms. Villella who was on her way to Gananoque, Ont., for a conference.

Many passengers squeezed out of the train through holes that had been created in the crash. In a press release, VIA said there were a total of 75 passengers on board.

The force of the crash was felt in homes and stores nearby. Dave Deyell was eating in the restaurant at a nearby IKEA when he thought he was in the middle of a small earthquake. “You could feel it,” he said.

Following the derailment, VIA and GO Train service was disrupted. Railway workers were trying to free one track that could be used.

VIA said passengers travelling on Monday from Toronto to Niagara would be taking buses instead. Passengers travelling in southwestern Ontario can check on the status of their train at 1-888-VIA-RAIL or at viarail.ca.

GO Train service will originate and terminate at Burlington for an extended period of time. GO Bus service will operate in each direction between Burlington and Aldershot. GO Trains will originate from Burlington with a five to 10-minute delay

Follow on Twitter: @McarthurGreg

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