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Eyewitnesses on Ottawa bus recall a disaster in the making

Investigators examine the scene of an accident involving a bus and a train in Ottawa on Sept. 18, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

From his seat on the upper level of the double-decker bus, Steve Watton could not see the man behind the steering wheel one floor down. But he certainly could see the train.

It was travelling at a decent clip. It was on a collision course with the bus. And the bus driver was making no effort to apply the brakes.

"One of the passengers noticed that the bus driver wasn't slowing down," Mr. Watton said after paramedics attended to him early on Wednesday, when a crash killed at least six people including the driver.

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"He started to scream from the lower level. Nothing happened. And the screams got louder. Three of four people started screaming, 'Hey, hey, hey! Pay attention!' And, all of a sudden, [the driver] woke up, or stopped texting, and he saw the train coming and he slammed on the brakes."

But it was too late. The bus, which was travelling in a designated transitway parallel to Woodroffe Avenue, one of Ottawa's main north-south corridors, had already nudged onto the tracks. The train slammed into it, ripping off the front left side.

Lorraine Plante also saw the disaster in the making.

"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," Ms. Plante said, 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. My first impression was, 'How can you not be paying attention? You had a death wish.' "

Mr. Watton was on the top level, four rows behind the front seats, which are coveted on the new, two-layer, commuter vehicles because the wide windows offer a great view of the road ahead. The men who had occupied those spots on this day had been tossed 10 to 15 metres away.

"The two guys right in the front on the lefthand side were gone, Mr. Watton said. "The guy in the second row on the lefthand side, he was thrown out of the train as well, but he didn't die. I saw him. He's certainly got a few broken bones."

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Inside the bus, many of those who had been standing were thrown to the floor. A young mother and her baby in a stroller were among those who had survived. Passengers scrambled for the back door because the front was was damaged and blocked by an injured person.

Osama Abdali had seen the train coming and had braced for the impact. He usually sits near the front but this time chose a spot at the rear that was spared the worst of the impact. Those around him suffered bumps, bruises, and scrapes and it was only after getting outside that he realized the magnitude of what had transpired.

"I didn't realize it was so bad," said Mr. Abdali. "When I came out of the bus, I saw the bodies lying on the track. Oh my God. I can't imagine if I'd taken that front seat, my favourite seat, where I would be. I wouldn't be talking to you right now for sure."

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.

"This train normally comes at this time and it was on schedule. Our bus was on schedule as well. So normally the bus would slow down and stop and watch for it," said Ajoy Bista who could see the disaster unfold from the upper deck. "This time my instinct was he was not slowing down, he was speeding instead. He kept on going and there were people yelling 'stop stop stop stop' but by that time it was too late."

The crash seemed to happen in slow motion, said Mr. Bista, like something out of a movie. "All I heard was a big boom," he said, "and then I saw several bodies metres away."

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Chad Mariage said he could see the train coming but it didn't immediately understand that there was going to be an impact until he started hearing people react on the bus.

"It's the kind of thing you feel more than you see," said Mr. Mariage. "You feel the impact and you see the train carrying on and you know it's going to be a bad situation. Obviously my thoughts are with the people who weren't as lucky as me."

There were a lot of injuries, said Mr. Mariage. "The people that weren't injured attempted to help the people that were, obviously without making things worse," he said. "The evacuation happened pretty quickly and, to the credit of first responders, they responded pretty quickly to the accident and in great numbers."

Eric Nelson, who was also on the top deck of the bus, said passengers saw the train crossing lights flashing and screamed to the driver when the bus didn't slow down.

"We were all expecting, I think, for the bus driver to see it as well, but I guess he didn't. And then everybody kind of yelled, and it felt like he kind of hit the brakes at the last second, but clearly …" Mr. Nelson said, trailing off while speaking outside a nearby Via Rail station after the crash.

He jumped up just before impact from his second-floor seat, about halfway down the bus. It hit the side of the train, he said.

"The scene was just chaotic," said Mr. Nelson. "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. Things like that. For the most part in the back of the bus, it was kind of more manageable injuries – but the front, anyone sitting in the front three rows, there's no way they walked out without major injuries there."

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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