As he rushed in the dark to a small-town hospital, all Alex Carrion knew was his company's van had crashed on a country road in the Ontario hamlet of Hampstead and his workers were hurt. When he got to the hospital, police officers told him nearly everyone in the van was dead.
He was stunned, scarcely believing what he'd heard. "I said to myself, 'Second time?' "
He was supposed to be with his workers on the poultry farm that day nearly three weeks ago to help train five new arrivals from his native Peru. But his feet were swollen and sore and it hurt to walk, so he went to the doctor instead after the crew set off from his New Hamburg warehouse around 6:30 a.m.
Thirteen hours later, alone in Stratford General Hospital, he struggled to understand how such a calamity could strike again. His youngest son, Pedro, who pushed him to expand his chicken vaccination business, died in a van crash eight years ago, at age 21, along with two other workers. He was behind the wheel, taking a crew to a poultry farm, when he accidentally ran a red light on a thick foggy morning in Hamilton. Now, 10 more of Mr. Carrion's employees were dead, all of them connected to him in some way – through family, friends or old neighbours.
"It's really hard to think this happened," Mr. Carrion, 59, said in his first interview about the horrific collision, one of the deadliest in Ontario history. "The only thing I want for them is to have a better life, and then this happened."
From his humble beginnings in a shantytown north of Lima, Mr. Carrion became the conduit for a small community of Peruvians to find work in Canada with his company, MARC Poultry Vaccination Services. Relatives and friends turned to him, hoping to build a better future for their families back home. And although they were far from their wives and kids, their personal ties to Mr. Carrion meant they were still among family, spending their time off playing soccer and hitting the dance floor at neighbourhood bars. To them, the towering Mr. Carrion – who came to Canada after marrying a former nun – was a man of influence, a success story with a background much like their own.
At his New Hamburg warehouse, Mr. Carrion laboured to speak about the men and the crash that claimed their lives, closing his eyes and holding back tears. "We were a big family," he said. "Everybody, we know each other."
Nearby, atop a beige metal filing cabinet, sat a picture of his son, Pedro.
"We're not over it yet," Raymond said of his brother's death. "It's not supposed to happen twice."
FALLING FOR A CANADIAN NUN
Mr. Carrion's childhood home in Peru stands out as one of the nicer dwellings on the street, a dirt road crisscrossed by dangling electrical wires. The house wasn't always that way: Its far more modest foundations took shape in an urban slum on the outskirts of the capital about 50 years ago. Mr. Carrion's family had joined waves of squatters who poured into Comas to build makeshift shelters out of straw mats, paper and corrugated metal, without electricity or running water.
A middle child of six kids, he started working at the age of 7, shining shoes and selling newspapers because his family needed the money. By the age of 11, he was working in construction. At 16, he was a plumber.
But no matter how hard he and his family worked, they couldn't rise above the country's crushing poverty. Their lot may never have changed had he not fallen for a Canadian nun in Peru.
He was 21 years old when he met Marlene Waechter at church. The pair forged a friendship that blossomed into a love affair after she left the religious order to be with him. The couple married and moved to Ontario in 1980 after the birth of their eldest son, Raymond.
Mr. Carrion's first job in Canada was with his brother-in-law's construction business, but when he fell off a barn and hurt his legs, he began looking for other work. He joined Brian's Poultry Services in 1983, catching and loading chickens for farmers Brian and Evelyn Herman. The stint helped him secure work with a hatchery in Hanover, Ont.
At Horizon Chicks, he learned the ins and outs of poultry vaccination, supervising a crew. By 1989, he was ready to strike out on his own, starting MARC Poultry Vaccination Services.
Building the business took a toll on Mr. Carrion's time with his family and his marriage fell apart. He was rarely home, toiling from 3 a.m. until 10 at night. His sons, Raymond and Pedro, spent their summer holidays working with him. It was the only way to get quality time with their father.
"Any business is tough to start," said Mr. Carrion, who now lives in a modest bungalow clad in red brick and white siding in Kitchener. He paid $130,000 for the house in 1996 and has mortgaged it several times to raise cash for his business. "It was long hours," he said of his firm's formative years. "I didn't see my family. That's the only thing I regret about this business, but I had to build something … provide them with a better life."
Over the years, Mr. Carrion returned regularly to Comas, and when he did, it was as a striking success – the owner of the largest vaccination service for breeder chickens in Southern Ontario, working on about 55 farms. He wielded influence that came with the promise of work and opportunity.
His relatives constantly asked him to help them come to Canada. He sponsored several members of his immediate family for immigration, but there was little he could do for his many cousins, nephews, nieces and friends until 2007, when he began hiring temporary foreign labourers to augment his Canadian work force. Since that time, he has brought 20 Peruvians to Canada.
The arrangement was mutually beneficial. Mr. Carrion got a pool of reliable workers, and the Peruvian migrants got the chance to build a substantial nest egg, saving as much as $1,000 monthly when their homeland's current minimum wage is equal to $250 a month.
In many ways, the experience of Mr. Carrion's migrant workers was atypical. He wasn't a stranger; they weren't holed away in trailers in the middle of nowhere, like so many other foreign farm labourers in Canada. Mr. Carrion regularly socialized with his employees. He set them up in apartments in Kitchener because they didn't want to be stuck in the countryside, far from grocery stores and nightlife. On weekends, they often gathered for a big communal meal in one of the Jean Avenue apartments.
"He goes beyond for those men," said Melissa West-Balceda, whose husband works as a chicken catcher for Mr. Carrion.
UNCONSOLABLE OVER LOSS
Inside a red-brick church with stained-glass windows and a vaulted ceiling, Mr. Carrion sat silently on a stiff wooden pew, his head bowed as he wept. In front of him, nine grey, cloth-covered caskets fanned the church's white marble altar, each one accompanied with a framed photograph of the Peruvian migrant worker inside.
Dozens of people approached Mr. Carrion at last week's memorial service in Kitchener, placing a hand on his broad shoulder, hugging him and kissing his left cheek. His family, his workers and poultry farmers from across Ontario have tried to console him, but it's still hard for him to comprehend why so many lives were lost in that single moment on Feb. 6.
Mr. Carrion's 16-member vaccination crew had stopped at Tim Hortons before heading to Albert Burgers's poultry farm early in the morning. They spent the day rustling up about 16,000 11-week-old chickens, injecting vaccines into their necks and wings and squeezing medicated drops into their eyes.
When they were done, they stripped off their grey coveralls and black rubber booties. Three of the workers set off in a van around 4:30 p.m., while the others lingered a bit longer. The trio had no clue what happened to their co-workers until later that night.
The second van with 13 people on board was only 500 metres from Mr. Burgers's farm when the crash occurred. The van's driver, David Blancas Hernandez, turned onto Perth Road 107 as a transport truck driven by Chris Fulton approached. Mr. Fulton swerved, but he didn't have enough time to avoid the packed vehicle. His red truck rolled onto its roof; the white van crumpled like an accordion.
When the crew didn't return to the New Hamburg warehouse or to the Kitchener apartments, co-workers began to worry and phoned the Carrions. Mr. Carrion tried Mr. Blancas's cell, but there was no answer. Just before 7 p.m., the police told him to go to the Stratford hospital.
Three men survived – Juan Jose Ariza, 36, and Javier Aldo Medina, 38, were released this week from a London hospital and are recovering in a care home, awaiting the arrival of their wives from Peru. But 26-year-old Edgar Sulla Puma remains in critical condition with serious head injuries in a hospital in Hamilton.
With a police investigation ongoing, Mr. Carrion declined to talk about why the van's driver, his cousin Mr. Blancas, didn't have the proper licence to operate the 15-passenger vehicle. Mr. Blancas, according to police, failed to yield for the truck driven by Mr. Fulton, who also died in the wreckage.
In Peru, funerals were held this week for the fallen men. Mr. Carrion will at some point travel to Comas to explain what happened. He knows some of the families are angry with him.
"I need to talk to them and say to them how happy they were working for me and how much I'm going to miss them," he said. "I considered them all my family."
With reports from Colin Freeze, Stephanie Chambers, Greg McArthur and Kim Mackrael
The ties that bind Alex Carrion and his workers
David Blancas Hernandez, 45, was a cousin.
Mario Abril Paredes, 48, was a cousin.
Jose Valdiviezo Taboada, 49, was a cousin.
Fernando Valdiviezo Correa was also a relative and Mr. Valdiviezo's son. He worked for MARC Poultry Vaccination Services for one day.
Elvio Suncion Bravo was a cousin of Mr. Carrion's nephew. He was also on the job for one day.
Cesar Sanchez Palacios, 53, was a brother of Mr. Carrion's brother-in-law.
Corsino Jaramillo Corzo, 47, was a childhood friend.
Oscar Campomanes Corzo was Mr. Jaramillo's brother. It was his first day on the job.
Enrique Arenaza Leon, 47, was a friend.
Juan Castillo, 58, was originally from Nicaragua and had lived in Kitchener, Ont., for two decades. Throughout that time, he was Mr. Carrion's right-hand man.
Javier Aldo Medina, 38, is the son-in-law of a childhood friend. He worked for MARC Poultry for one day.
Juan Jose Ariza, 36, is a friend of the family. It was also his first day on the job.
Edgar Sulla Puma, 26, is the brother-in-law of Mr. Carrion's immigration consultant.