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Across the fence

Rob Boyd and Clemy Srour were backyard neighbours in 2013. After the fatal bus-train collision scarred their Ottawa suburb, nothing for either man would be the same.

Rob Boyd hasn’t set foot on an OC Transpo bus in a decade.

No one in his immediate family has, he says — not since his son died while riding a double-decker a short distance from their former south Ottawa home.

Boyd’s son, Connor, was a Carleton University student and aspiring high school teacher. The 21-year-old was on his way to a third-year university class on Sept. 18, 2013, when his bus collided with a moving Via Rail train at a level crossing in Barrhaven.

The Transitway crash between Fallowfield station and Woodroffe Avenue was one of the city’s worst transit disasters, leaving six people dead and nine others seriously injured.

Alongside Connor Boyd and fellow Carleton student Kyle Nash, also 21, four other people died: fellow passengers Karen Krzyzewski, 53; Rob More, 35; and Michael Bleakney, 57; and David Woodard, the 45-year-old bus driver.

All were at or near the very front of the bus.

The fatal victims of the bus-train crash, clockwise from top left: Kyle Nash, Michael Bleakney, bus driver Dave Woodard, Rob More, Karen Krzyzewski and Connor Boyd. (CBC)

Another passenger, Clemy Srour, would have been among them, had the seats on the top deck’s first row not already been filled.

He sat instead in the second row.

“Everyone sitting in front of me lost their lives,” he recalls.

Srour didn’t know it at the time — his wife only told him later, deeper into his recovery — but one of those riders in front of him happened to be the son of his backyard neighbour.

That neighbour was Rob Boyd.

“That was a really, really hard thing to face,” Srour says.

‘Shakes your faith in reality’

Boyd was out of town when word of the collision spread.

Connor didn’t like to worry his parents, Boyd says, so when he didn’t answer his phone that morning, Boyd knew something was wrong.

When Boyd came down the escalator at the Ottawa airport, he was confronted with big-screen TV images of the crash site.

But until a police officer arrived at the family’s house about 12 hours after the crash to confirm, in a trembling voice, that Connor was dead, Boyd still held out hope.

“It really kind of shakes your faith in reality,” Boyd says of his only son’s death.

Connor Boyd, pictured here with his father Rob, wanted to be a teacher, his dad says. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Connor was “really at the cusp of it all,” Boyd says: a self-confident traveller and avid reader who recommended books to his mom and would have made a great dad.

“You kind of assume there’s a certain amount of safety and predictability in the world,” Boyd says. “And that was gone.”

A change of scenery

Boyd and his wife now live a good 20 minutes south of Barrhaven, in a red-brick North Gower farmhouse that’s become their shared renovation project. Their two cats roam freely outside, while a gaggle of wild turkeys wanders behind their backyard deck amid the chirp of crickets.

It’s a huge change of scenery, Boyd says. Even basic maintenance requires a lot of work — a helpful distraction that Boyd says has helped him “get through all of this.”

Another big draw: the lack of train noises.

After Connor Boyd’s death, the train whistles in Barrhaven “disrupted everything,” Boyd says.

“Any moment [we were] relaxing in the backyard, we would all freeze.”

Rob Boyd moved out of Barrhaven in 2019; the sound of the train whistle was a major factor. He and his wife settled in a quiet North Gower farmhouse they are renovating. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Even the house itself had its power over them. At first, it was difficult to contemplate leaving the home where Connor had his formative teen years.

Connor’s 15-year-old sister moved into his room shortly after his death, “just so, I think, she could be surrounded by his memories,” Boyd says.

Grieving became a delicate negotiation within the tight-knit family, where, as Boyd put it, “when you start making changes, you’re letting go more and more.”

But gradually, the family accepted they couldn’t stay in Barrhaven. Every time they drove through the area, Connor came back to mind. That concert at Clarke Fields Park? Connor would have gone to that.

The family repainted Connor’s room, sold the house and relocated to the more rural North Gower in 2019.

Boyd says they had to just keep moving forward.

“What choice do you have? Time is relentless.”

Painful memories

Srour, meanwhile, was on his own path.

After breaking several bones in the crash, the retired public servant, who was 51 at the time, actually found his own Barrhaven home to be a safe haven.

In the spring of 2014, after spending several months recovering in a wheelchair, Srour was walking outside when a double-decker bus suddenly came into view.

Triggered, Srour fled.

“I [could] remember lying on the ground and the damaged bus lying right there in front of me,” he says of the day of the collision.

Crash survivor Clemy Srour couldn't walk for months after the collision. This photo from late 2013 shows him taking some of his first steps again. (Submitted by Clemy Srour)

Before the crash, Srour took the bus to his downtown Ottawa government office. More often than not, he sat on the top deck, at the very front.

Srour says if he hadn’t sat one row back that morning, he “wouldn’t be here today.”

After he was thrown from the bus, Srour asked the first responders to contact his rabbi, who then called his wife, Mimi Leyton.

“I didn’t want to freak her out,” Srour says.

Leyton recalled how she washed the blood off her husband’s wedding ring. She says it was hard being separated from her husband of 25 years while he recuperated away from home.

“What he was going through physically was very separate from what my daughters and I were going through emotionally,” she says. “[We were] dealing with the fact that he was in this traumatic accident, very high profile and in the news, and trying to protect ourselves to get through it.”

The Jewish community rallied behind the family, preparing meals and offering homes near the hospital where they could stay. After Clemy Srour recovered, one of his colleagues would lead him on a circuitous route on foot between meetings downtown to avoid coming face-to-face with double-deckers.

In 2013, the date of the crash fell on the eve of the late-September Jewish holiday of Sukkot, a festival for giving thanks and finding joy in food and shelter.

It took Srour many years to resume the holiday’s tradition of building a symbolic hut, or sukkah, in his yard.

“Broken bones can be mended physically over time,” he says. “It’s the mental part or the psychological part that takes a lot longer.”

Staying centred

Rob Boyd avoided taking the train for work trips, preferring to drive himself and not put his life in someone else’s hands.

He bought another car once his daughter was old enough to drive.

“We could not fathom putting our faith in the system any longer with the only child that we had left,” he says.

Ottawa’s many remaining level crossings, including the one east of Fallowfield station where the crash happened, create a certain amount of anxiety “every time we come up to a train track.”

The crossing where the collision happened remains largely as it was in 2013, though the city has reduced the speed limit there to 50 km/h. In this photo taken at the site last week, a bus heads south down the Transitway. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Work has helped keep Boyd centered. In his job in the harm reduction field, he hopes to “prevent other parents from having to go through the same grieving process that I was going through.

“The grief? I mean, it’s still something that sits with me, sits with us on a daily basis,” he says.

Boyd and his wife have converted their farmhouse’s original dining room into a small library, with framed photos of Connor and his sister in the centre of the bookcase.

The couple doesn’t have a ritual for the anniversary of Connor’s death, although Boyd says that at 8:48 a.m., the precise moment of the crash, the thoughts really come rushing back.

“Then typically after that, the heaviness of it disappears a little bit and we find something to do,” he says.

Framed photos of Connor Boyd and his sister form the centrepiece of a converted library in his parents' home. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

‘Find silver linings’

For Clemy Srour, there are signs his trauma is slowly fading.

While out on a drive last month, Srour pulled up behind a double-decker but didn’t immediately register what it was. It was a moment, he later realized, that marked progress in how he was reckoning with the events of Sept. 18, 2013.

In the past decade, Srour has watched both his daughters get married and run multiple marathons.

Srour says the family has learned to cherish moments big and small — even if it’s been hard knowing six people died while he was “spared.”

“While [the crash] will always stay with us, we feel we can to some extent put it behind us,” he says.

“Find silver linings. Remember the good things in life. Hug your kids.”

Srour went on to run several marathons, his wife Mimi Leyton by his side here in 2016. (Submitted by Clemy Srour)

The meeting

A few months after the crash, the Boyds got a note from Mimi Leyton, introducing her family and expressing a desire to eventually connect.

Boyd says they put it aside as they “weren’t ready for that.”

But some time later, Boyd and Clemy Srour met each other from their respective Barrhaven backyards.

Boyd says a survivor like Srour might feel guilt; Boyd had, after all, second-guessed his own actions. What if he hadn’t been in Toronto, or if he’d driven Connor to school?

“You [think], what choices am I making now that are going to be fatal?”

Boyd says he wanted to make sure his neighbour knew he wasn’t angry that he’d lived and Connor hadn’t.

“It’s not like, ‘I’d rather it was you than [Connor],’” Boyd says. “It’s a horrible thing that happened, and I was glad there weren’t more people killed.”

Boyd remembers holding Srour’s hand across the fence and saying something like, ‘I’m glad you’re OK.’”

If you or someone you know needs mental health support, you can call the 24-hour Wellness Together Phone Counselling Hotline at 1-866-585-0445 or the 24-hour Mental Health Crisis Line at 1-888-737-4668.

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