Ottawa

6 months after Westboro bus crash, city's silence deafening for grieving families

It's been nearly six months since a double-decker OC Transpo bus slammed into a shelter at Westboro station, killing three and injuring 23. Families of the victims say they're still waiting for answers.

'No one's talking, and no one's owning up,' victim's brother says

Karen Benvie's mother, Judy Booth, was killed in the Westboro bus crash. For Benvie, seeing the perennials Booth planted blossom this spring was a painful reminder of the loss her family has suffered. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

As the frost melted away and the first perennials popped up in the garden of her Almonte, Ont., home this spring, Karen Benvie couldn't help thinking of her mom, who planted those flowers.

It's been nearly six months since Judy Booth, 57, was killed while riding the bus home from her job at the National Capital Commission one frigid day in January.

Booth was among the passengers on the top deck of the OC Transpo Route 269 that smashed into a shelter awning at Westboro station on Jan. 11. Two other public servants, Bruce Thomlinson, 56, and Anja van Beek, 65, were also killed and 23 people were injured.

Normally, Booth didn't work Fridays, so when news of the crash began spreading over social media, it never occurred to Benvie that her mom might have been on the bus.

Karen Benvie, who lost her mother, Judy Booth, in the crash, says her family feels stuck without having answers about what happened. 0:47

Benvie texted her mom to make sure everything was OK, but didn't receive a reply. It wasn't unusual for Booth not to respond right away, she said.

Benvie went to bed, not knowing that when she awoke, her phone would be full of messages to call her family.

Judy Booth and her husband, Chesley, at their wedding. (Supplied)

'She was on that bus'

"So I called my sister and she goes, 'It's mom,' and I said, 'What do you mean, it's mom?' And she goes, 'She was on that bus.' And so my first question was, 'Well, where is she?' And it was dead silence on the other end," Benvie said.

Judy Booth and her youngest daughter, Holly. (Supplied)

The family finally got confirmation of Booth's death on Saturday night, more than 24 hours after the crash, and only after investigators had matched her remains with dental records. The following day, Benvie, her daughter, Lily, and sister, Holly, were due to celebrate a late Christmas with Booth and step-father Chesley. It was a family tradition.

"So then on the Sunday we went to mom's house and it was all decorated, ready to go for Christmas, Christmas tree up and presents and stockings, and the food in the fridge," Benvie said.

But instead of sitting down to brunch and opening gifts, the family was visited by members of the Ottawa police victim crisis unit, who arrived with Booth's belongings. Those included a flattened ring, a mangled travel mug and a box of assorted jams, likely meant as a gift for someone, which was somehow unscathed. 

Jac van Beek, whose sister Anja was killed in the crash, says his family is still looking for answers about why the crash happened in the first place. 1:13

The family called friends and relatives, and began planning a funeral. Benvie recalls feeling "fuzzy," like being underwater. It still feels unreal.

"I still feel like it's a joke and she's just going to pick up the phone one day and call," Benvie said.

Unanswered questions

Benvie is also angry. She wants answers about what caused the crash, and what the City of Ottawa and OC Transpo are doing to prevent a similar tragedy.

"Was it a driver error? Was it a faulty part on the bus? Was it just too icy on that roadway?" Benvie asked.

"These are all things they have control of, so it would be really nice to hear what they're going to do to make it better so that nobody else has to go through this."

Without those answers, Benvie said her family is struggling to move on from the tragedy.

First responders rescue a passenger at the scene of the double-decker bus crash on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. The cause of the crash is still under investigation. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

An 'open wound'

Rick O'Connor, the city's clerk and solicitor, wrote in a statement to CBC that the city can't discuss those matters because the police investigation into the crash is still underway. But he acknowledged the process can be frustrating.

"This is not to interfere with the work of the police and to ensure that the investigation remains uncompromised," O'Connor wrote. "The results and findings of the independent investigation will be essential to prevent similar incidents in the future."

Jac van Beek lost his sister, Anja van Beek, in the crash. He says the family is still waiting to find out what happened. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Still, for the families, the wait for information can be excruciating.

Jac van Beek, whose sister, Anja van Beek, was also killed, said the crash has left his family with an "open wound" that won't heal. 

"No one's talking, and no one's owning up. We're hearing a lot of very elaborate explanations for why people aren't responsible, but at the end of the day, a bus ended up where it shouldn't have been and my sister died," van Beek said.

"We need to understand why that happened."

Silence deafening

Van Beek said Mayor Jim Watson, city staff and police were all sympathetic immediately following the crash, offering the family a flag and a book of condolence from City Hall.

Now, however, there's only silence — "a slap at a person's dignity," van Beek said.

"It's almost like you're ignoring them, when it fact it's a big deal. It's having a big effect on us and you're not talking."

Anja Van Beek and her three brothers (l-r) Jac, Mark and Andrew in 2016. (photovanbeek.com)

The van Beeks moved to Canada from the Netherlands in the early 1950s, when Jac and his little sister Anja were small. Two more siblings were born here.

Jac van Beek said his sister was a hard worker who was devoted to her husband and two daughters. She'd been on her way home to Kanata from her Treasury Board job the day of the bus crash. She loved her work, but van Beek said his sister was starting to think about retirement.

I just wish they would reach out and be human a bit.- Jac van Beek

"You could see she was moving into that next stage of her life, and I don't know, it just got taken away, like that, it was over, and I think she got cheated," he said.

Van Beek said he feels the city is hiding behind its lawyers.

"If we knew what as going on, what the plans were and what sort of a process they're going through, that would change a lot. That would help us sort of settle and say, OK, we're patient, we'll wait," he said.

"I think [in] the courts it will come out eventually. I just wish they would reach out and be human a bit."

A note left for Bruce Thomlinson at a makeshift memorial at Westboro station. (Matthew Kupfer/CBC)