OTTAWA - In an instant, the everyday morning commute turned to sheer terror.
“It all happened in a matter of seconds,” a shaken Robert Kurtenbach recalled. “Suddenly I heard people screaming and yelling, stop!”
The packed Ottawa transit double-decker didn’t even slow, although some said the driver braked in the final seconds.
It smashed into the passing train through the closed gates and flashing lights of the level crossing, witnesses said.
The impact sent Kurtenbach, a lawyer heading to work at Aboriginal Affairs, flying from his seat on the upper deck.
Passengers fled down the stairs and out the doors a “hero” had pried open and was holding open so others could escape.
Then they stood shocked, mutely surveying the bus with its nose sheared off and the train, derailed on twisted tracks like a discarded toy.
Five people on the bus died at the scene and a sixth in hospital after the northbound city bus hit the engine of the Toronto-bound Via Rail train. It happened on the Transitway near Fallowfield Station during rush hour Wednesday.
Among the dead is driver David Woodard, who had almost a decade’s service with OC Transpo.
At last count 37 people went to four hospitals, 11 of them critical.
It’s the deadliest collision in OC Transpo history.
No one on the train was hurt.
The scene after a Via Rail train collided with a double-decker bus in Ottawa September 18, 2013
Abandoned cellphones on the bus rang and rang as police, firefighters and paramedics swarmed the scene. Backpacks and shoes could be seen at the edge of the yellow and blue tarps that covered the bodies.
One man said his sister, a passenger, had seen a man on the bus who’d been decapitated.
“She said everyone had blood on them,” he said.
The region’s trauma centre at the Civic campus of the Ottawa Hospital brought in a dozen extra nurses and doctors to cope with the most casualties they’ve dealt with in recent memory.
At city hall, flags were lowered to half-mast, a book of condolences set up and Mayor Jim Watson said Ottawa’s thoughts and prayers are with the hurt and grieving.
At the Nepean Sportsplex, worried relatives and friends gathered for news of people they knew or feared were on the bus. They were greeted inside with food, blankets and the comfort of trauma counsellors.
One woman paced, awaiting news of her baby’s father.
“I was hoping to get information to see if he’s OK,” she said. “All they said was, it’s a waiting game.”
An investigation is underway at OC Transpo.
“We’re still trying to learn the details of how this tragedy occurred and we will be sharing that information as it comes available,” general manager John Manconi said.
The head of the Transportation Safety Board said it could take several months to find out what happened.
Eleven board inspectors, along with Via staff, were probing the wreckage for signs of some malfunction.
Witnesses suspect they’ll find none.
Eyewitness Mark Cogan was waiting in his car about four vehicles back from the railway gates on Woodroffe. Both sets of crossing barriers were down.
“Everything was down, everybody was at a standstill,” Cogan said. “(The bus) went through the guard rail.”
Cristina Pecora was also stopped waiting for the train to pass when she saw the bus going “way, way too quickly” towards the gates and flashing lights.
“I thought to myself - he’s not stopping,” Pecora said. “Then the brake lights went on; he was trying to stop the last few seconds.”
-With files from Doug Hempstead, Jon Willing, Danielle Bell, Chris Hofley, Michael Aubry, Chris Hofley and Jessica Murphy