EVERYDAY COMMUTE TURNS TO HEARTBREAK
Every seat taken before disaster on Transitway
It should have been a normal commute home at the end of a long work week for the passengers on OC Transpo’s “Connexion” Route 269, bound for Kanata’s Bridlewood neighbourhood from downtown.
But as the packed, double-decker bus roared through Westboro Station at 3:50 p.m., something went suddenly, horrifyingly wrong. It appears the driver lost control, sending the bus hurtling over the curb and into the shelter, where it became impaled on the shelter’s overhanging steel and glass roof, which sliced six or seven rows deep into the bus’s upper right side.
Two people on the bus and one person standing on the platform were killed. Another 23 were injured, nine of whom were in hospital Friday night with critical, life-threatening injuries.
The female bus driver was arrested at the scene.
“I remember hearing the bus driver saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God’,” one passenger said as she walked away from the station down Scott Street, an hour after the crash.
“The bus was full, every seat was taken, plus there were people standing in the middle row, so they were flying back,” said the woman, a member of the military who would not give her name.
“There was glass everywhere. One guy I was helping, his foot was facing the other way and he had blood all over his face. He was top left, second from the front.
“One person on the road was unconscious, the other one was conscious, but pretty beat up. It was awful.”
Police, paramedics and firefighters swarmed the scene at Westboro Station as they tried to free the injured, many of them trapped on the bus’s upper deck. Police closed Scott Street near the station and buses rerouted off the Transitway.
Firefighters used ladders to reach the bus’s upper deck, as first-responders worked in bone-chilling temperatures to comfort and treat the injured. Some of the badly hurt were removed on stretchers through the bus’s smashed upper front window. Others were carried or limped their way to a fleet of waiting ambulances.
“It is with deep sadness that I report that there were three confirmed casualties,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson said at an evening press briefing at city hall.
“Speaking on behalf of my colleagues on city council, our hearts and condolences go out to all those injured, those families that have lost loved ones and their families. Our thoughts are also with the others on that bus, at that station, those directly involved, and those who witnessed the collision.”
The Ottawa Hospital declared an emergency Code Orange about a half hour after the crash. It received 12 patients at its trauma centre at the Civic campus and six at the General campus. A doctor at the Civic campus walked into the emergency room and addressed the handful of people waiting with conditions unrelated to the bus crash. He thanked them for their patience, and instructed anyone who felt their condition was getting worse to talk to the triage desk.
“We’re having a mass casualty event,” he explained. “There’s some really critical patients.”
The bus driver was taken to police headquarters Friday night to be questioned by police.
“As to the driver, I can advise you without getting into details, there was a requirement for us to arrest her at the scene and she has been transported to our headquarters for interviewing,” Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau told reporters.
In response to a followup question, he said: “I can tell you that something led us to arrest the individual and take them to the station.”
Six police collision investigators pored over the crash scene trying to determine what went wrong. Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation and Transport Canada are also involved in the investigation, Bordeleau said.
Route 269 does not stop at Westboro Station, running straight through from Tunney’s Pasture, its previous stop, to Bayshore. It takes about an hour to do the full run, and many passengers come from the National Defence Headquarters at the Mackenzie King Bridge, where it starts its run.
It is the second deadly incident for OC Transpo since 2013 when a bus was struck by a Via passenger train at a level crossing near Fallowfield Road. Six people died, including the bus driver. Both the Westboro and Fallowfield buses involved OC Transpo’s double-decker Alexander Dennis E500 buses. The city’s transportation manager, John Manconi, said a Transportation Safety Board investigation after the 2013 crash found no faults with the vehicle.
“You recall the TSB report was very crystal clear that there was no issue with the double-decker bus from a maintenance perspective, from OC Transpo’s requirements to maintain them, we do pass all MTO inspections and so forth,” Manconi told reporters.
The city set up a post at the Churchill Seniors Centre to act as a reception centre for those both seeking information about family members they were unable to reach and a warming centre for first responders who had been at the scene.
Counsellors from the Ottawa police’s victims crisis unit were available to assist families and witnesses of the crash. Workers from the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were also stationed inside.
Around 8 p.m., only about a dozen people entered the reception centre, many anxious about loved ones who they had not been able to contact. Very soon after the centre opened, a couple was reunited with their teenaged daughter.
Kanata resident Mary Hawkeye went to the centre at about 7 p.m. after she was unable to contact her 26-year-old son, who works in a downtown restaurant.
“He left a couple of hours ago,” she said before going in. “He’s not answering his cellphone. It goes directly to voice mail. So we’re not really sure,” she said. “Hopefully, it’s good news.” Hawkeye left the centre a few minutes later after her son called from home.
“We’re so relieved,” she said. “But we’re praying for anyone who’s waiting. We’re praying for those folks who haven’t heard anything yet.”
People who are worried about loved ones who may have been on the bus can call the Canadian Red Cross at 1-855-797-8875 for more information.