Via Rail has confirmed that three of its employees, all in the locomotive section, died in a train derailment in the southern Ontario city of Burlington on Sunday afternoon.

"There's no question it's very tragic. We're a relatively small company, we're a family, we know everyone by name," said Via chief operating officer John Marginson, speaking to reporters at the scene.

"We certainly feel for the families of the colleagues that we lost," said Marginson, who added that there was no fuel leak at the site. The derailment involved five cars as well as the locomotive.

"It's very premature to speculate … but obviously something went very wrong," he said.

One of the engineers who died was a trainee. A fourth Via employee was injured in the derailment.

Halton police Chief Gary Crowell said the bodies of the dead were removed from the train at about 8 p.m. ET.

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Thirty-two people were injured, according to a release from Halton Region. Three passengers were airlifted to hospitals in Hamilton, one with a heart attack, another with a broken leg and the third with a back injury. The other passengers suffered less serious injuries and were either treated at the scene or sent to local hospitals.

An official with Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington said the hospital had seen 20 people from the accident ranging from minor to serious injuries.

None of the injuries are life-threatening and a few people have already been discharged, Mario Joanette told CBC News Network. He said he does not expect any more patients from the crash.

Another 10 patients were brought to the Credit Valley hospital and Trillium Health Centre in Mississauga. Most of them were expected to be discharged Sunday night.

Train car left 'standing up, but off the rails'

Passenger Eric Berger told CBC News about what it was like to survive the crash.

Witnesses sought

Halton police want to speak to any witnesses who saw the derailment.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at 905-823-4747, ext.  2306.

"My car was still standing up, but off the rails. And the two cars in front of me were on their side," Berger said.

He saw people being taken away on stretchers and others fitted with neck braces.

"I can’t tell too much how injured they were, but it seemed pretty bad," he said.

Passenger Deanna Villella said the derailment sent people and all their belongings flying through the air.

"I didn’t know what was happening," she told CBC News. "Everybody’s stuff was flying by, people were flying by, everything was crashing, people were screaming."

Hannah Lemke said the derailment started with "a little bump in the rails" and quickly got worse.

"Things started flying, people were screaming in sheer horror," Lemke, 22, told CBC News in a telephone interview from Everett, Ont.

"It was terrifying. It was probably the scariest moment of my life."

Lemke said she was riding in the third car in the train, where most people came out of the derailment unhurt.

si-hamilton-map

The train derailed near Burlington, Ont. (Google Map)

But Lemke said it appeared people in the first two cars suffered more serious injuries.

The Toronto-bound train was travelling from the Niagara area of southern Ontario when it went off the tracks.

While a passenger manifest suggested that the train carried 75 people at the time of the derailment, officials had located only 50 of those people by the end of Sunday night.

But the Halton police chief said it was not clear if the manifest was accurate and a sweep of the area did not turn up any stray passengers.

Quite often people will leave on their own, he said.

"They'll determine that they don't need to stay at the site or require minimal treatment and will walk away."

Investigators from the federal Transportation Safety Board will examine the train's "black box," which records technical and voice information. Officials say such investigations take at least a year.

DEADLY CANADIAN TRAIN ACCIDENTS

2006: A CN train derailment occurred near Lillooet, B.C., in which the train slid more than 200 metres down a mountain. Two employees were killed. An inadequate braking system was at fault.

1999: A Via train carrying 186 passengers derailed in Thamesville, Ont. It collided with stationary railcars on an adjacent track. Two crew members in the locomotive were fatally injured.

1986:  A speeding CN freight train slammed into a Via train as it headed eastwards from Hinton to Edmonton, killing 23 people and injuring 71 others. Human error was to blame.

TSB spokesperson Chris Krepski said six investigators will be at the scene on Monday.

CBC reporter Charlsie Agro spoke to some passengers. Many were shaken and crying. Agro said one passenger mentioned that a man sitting next to him "flew out the window."

The derailment occurred at about 3:30 p.m. ET near Plains and King Roads in Burlington.

Burlington Mayor Rick Goldring said the crash caused minor damage to nearby buildings.

Ontario Provincial Police closed the Queen Elizabeth Way in both directions to allow air ambulances to reach the scene. The highway was later reopened.

Burlington is located about an hour west of Toronto.

TRAVEL INFORMATION:

  • VIA RAIL: Customers travelling Monday on the line from Toronto to Niagara should expect to be getting on buses. Customers are also being told to contact the service line: 1 888 842 6141.
  • GO TRAINS - LAKESHORE WEST LINE: Service will originate and terminate at Burlington for an extended period. 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.
With files from The Canadian Press