Special Report

Ottawa bus-train crash: Documents reveal tragedy response

The CBC's Alistair Steele read through 603 pages detailing the response from first responders, OC Transpo officials and City of Ottawa officials. Here, he details what he discovered about the response to a tragic crash that left six people dead.

Documents obtained under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act

Communications between city employees reveal possible existence of a video of fatal crash that killed six people. 2:28

To read the 603 pages of documents, obtained under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, scroll down to near the bottom of this article. You will find the documents in four parts.

It begins with a single line from OC Transpo’s General Manager John Manconi to members of the city’s transit commission, due to meet later that Wednesday morning. At 8:58 a.m. Manconi wrote: “Report of a train hitting a bus at Fallowfield crossing injuries. Details to follow”. The subject line over the hurriedly typed message simply read “Accident.”

There follows a torrent of e-mails, memos, updates and summaries to and from the city’s top bureaucrats and elected officials, that together provide a glimpse inside Ottawa City Hall in the 48 hours after the horrific collision between a VIA passenger train and a double-decker bus packed with passengers on their way to work and university.

The material — 603 pages in all — was released under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act last week, more than five months after CBC News filed the original request. The correspondence is in no discernible order.

Many pages, including the first six, are completely blank, their content kept secret by virtue of various provisions of the Act, including sections that give the city the right to withhold practically any personal information pertaining to an individual.

Anyone looking for clues into the driving record, training history or general health of bus operator Dave Woodard, who died in the crash, will be disappointed.

Witness had video of crash, documents suggest

Still, there are a few interesting revelations. At 7:10 on the evening of the crash, OC Transpo’s coordinator of transit safety, Donna-Lynn Ahee, issued a summary of observations by Transit Security Superintendent Gord Robinson. Among them, Robinson mentions, “Information provided from the coroner that a witness may have videotaped the accident. Extent of video content is unknown.”

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada will only confirm its investigators are reviewing “any and all available video footage” of the collision, but hasn’t disclosed what was captured in that footage, or by whom.

A horrific crash between an Ottawa transit bus and a Via passenger train left six people dead, dozens injured and questions about how it could have happened. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Another update from Ahee to top OC Transpo officials reveals some confusion over whose responsibility it was to follow up with survivors and witnesses who were experiencing emotional stress. The morning after the crash, Ahee writes: “Ottawa police expressed concern last night regarding how to provide support to passengers or witnesses of yesterday’s collision. Ottawa police were under the impression that OC Transpo had a process in place to contact these people.”

Shortly after the crash, the city set up a reception and reunification centre at the Nepean Sportsplex for survivors and their families. The Ottawa Police Victim Crisis Unit played a key role in the immediate aftermath, but there appeared to be no plan for the days and weeks ahead. Eventually, it was decided members of the public requiring follow-up care should contact the city’s claims department.

Yet it’s clear from the documents in the days following the crash some residents were having real trouble dealing with the event.

“I was absolutely horrified that the buses were back on the Transitway this morning,” wrote one OC Transpo passenger to the mayor and councillors Jan Harder and Steve Desroches two days after the crash. “At the very least the buses should have been rerouted to Woodroffe, at least till the weekend to give people a chance to come to grips with this tragic, tragic event … I pretty much lost it sitting there on the bus.”

City, OC Transpo workers received quick help, documents show

City employees — and particularly OC Transpo employees — involved in the collision and its aftermath seemed to fare better when it came to getting help dealing with the shock and trauma. Specialists with the city’s employee assistance program, along with a network of peer supporters, sprung into action, setting up numerous reception centres for colleagues troubled by the tragedy. There were constant updates to senior managers on the morale of the workforce. “Transit Operations is indicating that some staff are experiencing difficulties this morning coping with the tragedy,” noted one such update the day after the crash.

Also revealing are notes from a debriefing two days after the crash among the paramedics and supervisors who were first on the scene. While the first responders have been widely applauded for their fast action under gruesome circumstances that morning, it appears they themselves felt some things could have gone better.

Michael O’Brien — the first superintendent to arrive — noted there were “issues with communication and staging in an unknown area” and “logistics staff did not have radios,” and weren’t trained to use them. Another superintendent, Brian Morris, noticed paramedics weren’t “immediately aware” whether there were patients aboard the derailed VIA train. “Close call, if train tipped would have been extreme,” noted Morris.

Meanwhile the first paramedics on scene, Rachel Armstrong and Mark Kapcala, had difficulty just getting to the crash site. “Had no info or specific direction, followed police into station but had to turn around and followed oncoming fire truck to scene,” according to their comments during the debriefing. “At scene saw bystanders and body parts … Went to field where multiple pts ejected … Equipment truck could have been faster.” Kapcala and Armstrong would later accompany 16 patients on a bus to the Montfort Hospital.

The documents also show the city’s communications apparatus kept a careful watch on the activities of the media, both at the crash site and in the press. “Media are becoming an issue at Fallowfield station,” notes one update from Transit Security Superintendent Gord Robinson the day after the crash. “There are now individuals on Woodroffe Ave taking pictures of where the incident occurred.”

That same morning, OC Transpo’s Manager of Transit Safety, Jim Babe, complained, “We have a reporter standing on the city sidewalk by the exit gate where employees smoke in front of 1500 St. Laurent. The reporter is trying to get employees to approach her to do an interview.” On several occasions, security officials agree to keep an eye on members of the media via CCTV cameras.

Part 1

The city’s communications team also kept careful watch over tweets, broadcast interviews and newspaper stories. One Ottawa Citizen column lauding emergency personnel for their swift response to the tragedy was widely distributed among senior managers.

An e-mail from Citizen columnist Kelly Egan questioning the wisdom of resuming regular bus service without implementing any new safety measures at the crossing earned special attention from the mayor’s chief of staff, Serge Arpin. “For Kelly Egan — Serge wants us to respond directly. He has approved this response,” wrote communications staffer Michael Fitzpatrick to a number of top managers.

Yet it’s clear from numerous emails and letters from members of the public, to the mayor on down, in the days after the crash: journalists weren’t the only ones seeking answers. Ordinary residents were, too.

“How come in the Quebec side they have a city bylaw to oblige all vehicles with any passengers to stop at any Railway crossing,” asked one person, whose name was withheld, in an email to John Manconi and OC Transpo’s operations manager, David Pepper.

“I can think of two measures,” wrote another resident to Mayor Jim Watson and Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder. “The first would be to put a bridge at this crossing … the second … would be to require that all municipal buses stop at level railway crossings all of the time.”

Part 2

The documents include talking points prepared for senior staff and elected officials to help them deal with these questions, but they simply conclude because Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act doesn’t require urban buses to stop at controlled level crossings, OC Transpo is acting in accordance with the law. (It has since emerged OC Transpo quietly hired a Nova Scotia consulting firm to further study that issue and report back with its findings this spring.)

While the mayor — clearly dealing with one of the most serious crises of his political life — replied to residents’ emails with a polite yet perfunctory cut-and-paste response, the documents reveal OC Transpo chief John Manconi preferred a more personal approach, taking the time to reply to each and every note of condolence.

Manconi also displays heartfelt concern for his staff. “Take care of each other,” reads the subject line of one email to his senior managers a few hours after the crash. “If anyone needs anything please reach out to me. Everything will be fine and the organization and the city will be stronger,” he reassured them the next day.

That caring was reciprocated: “Just wanted to say a thank-you for Mr. Manconi talking to us on radio last night,” said one employee, whose name was withheld. “I was impressed that he thought (of the) drivers last night with everything on his mind.”

OC Transpo’s IT project manager Robert Delage wrote to his boss: “It’s in the tough time that you recognize great leadership … it was an utmost pleasure to serve by your side.” And from outside the organization, the United Way’s Peggy Austen offered this: “People sometimes forget about the leaders who themselves are trying to cope … I just wanted to make sure that you knew that people were also thinking about you.”

Part 3

Part 4

About the Author

Alistair Steele

CBC Ottawa municipal affairs reporter

After spending more than a decade covering Ottawa City Hall for CBC, Alistair Steele is now a digital copy editor and occasional contributor at cbc.ca/ottawa. Have a story idea? Email him at alistair.steele@cbc.ca.