LONDON, Ont. - A van carrying 13 poultry farm workers from South America drove right through a stop sign and into the path of a freightliner truck, police said Wednesday, citing driver error as the cause of one of Ontario's deadliest collisions.
Ten workers from the van and the truck driver died Monday after the violent impact sent the van hurtling across a lawn, trapping the dead and dying workers inside the wreckage. What was left of the truck was so mangled that it was thought at first to be a flatbed.
All of the workers — except one man originally from Nicaragua — were Peruvian, some of whom arrived in Canada days before their deaths and some of whom had well-established lives here.
The driver, David Armando Hernandez Blancas, 45, was one of the workers killed in the crash and had been in Ontario for some time, living in New Hamburg, not far from the crash site. He had an Ontario driver's licence, but not the type required to drive a van of that size, investigators said.
"This crash did not have to happen," said Chief Supt. John Cain of Ontario Provincial Police. "These lives need not have been lost. Driver error is the largest contributing factor to collisions in Ontario."
Relatives of one of the victims, Juan Castillo, visited the crash site Wednesday and said he was originally from Nicaragua, but had lived in Canada for 20 years. Next Tuesday would have been his 10th wedding anniversary, said Ana Enamorado.
She said many of the 13 people in the van were related. La Republica, a newspaper in Peru, reported that seven of those killed were from one family and the others were fathers and sons.
On Feb. 2, Jose Mercedes Valdiviezo Taboada, 49, posted to Facebook: "I am very happy I will soon have my eldest son with me working together in Canada."
Police named Fernando Correa as one of the victims, and a man named Fernando Martin Valdiviezo Correa, from Lima, Peru, posted on Feb. 2 on Facebook that he was leaving. On Feb. 4, he posted that he arrived in Canada, "happy with my dad."
Enrique Arturo Arenaza Leon, 47, was a former professional soccer player with Alianza Lima. In 1987 he missed a chartered flight with his teammates and the plane crashed, killing everyone on board except the pilot.
Leon had been in Canada since at least March 2010, when he posted a photo to Facebook of him standing on an apartment balcony on a snowy day. He didn't appear to be a big fan of Canada's winters, as he commented in English on another photo of himself from Jan. 5, 2011: "snow no good."
Leon had taken a trip to Niagara Falls, Ont., last summer and appears to have built an extended network of support in Kitchener, posting a photo album titled, "My family in Canada."
His family back home in Peru wept as they told a television interviewer that they were waiting for news on the repatriation of his body.
Patricia Aguilar holds up an old picture of a smiling Leon and, struggling to speak through sobs, says, ''I can't believe it.''
His daughter, Fiorella Arenaza, says "I just want them to bring back my daddy's body ... (I hope) they can help us."
Arenaza said she spoke with her father on Saturday.
"He said we would see each other soon," she said. "He said he was happy but he missed us. He said he wanted to be with us, and that he loved us very much."
Blancas-Hernandez, the driver of the van, had lived in Canada for several years, reported La Republica.
''He missed his family, and for that reason was thinking about returning to Peru in April,'' his sons David and Michael Blancas Contreras told the newspaper between tears at the family home in Comas.
Elvio Suncion Bravo posted photos just days before his death of his journey to Canada, including one of him bundled up in winter wear while standing in Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Friends and family posted condolences and memories to Bravo's Facebook page, remembering him as a great father and saying he went to Canada for a better future for him and his family.
Others remembered Bravo as "the gentleman in the neighbourhood," a dancer and a "witty joker" with "contagious joy."
Sixteen workers had just finished a shift vaccinating chickens at a nearby poultry farm Monday afternoon when 13 people piled into one van and three left in another vehicle.
The westbound GMC passenger van did not stop at a stop sign at the intersection in the tiny hamlet of Hampstead, Ont. It drove into the path of a southbound freightliner straight truck.
Police could not immediately say how fast the vehicles were travelling but both roads had 80 kilometre-per-hour speed limits.
Investigators are looking at many other factors, including mechanical fitness and sight lines at the intersection, to fully determine what happened in the "violent" collision, said provincial police Insp. Scott Lawson.
When paramedics and volunteer fire crews arrived at the scene of the horrific crash, five people were already dead. Firefighters had to perform a "difficult extraction" to get to the victims, and the others died while paramedics tried to save them.
The truck driver, Christopher Fulton, 38, from London, was killed. His employer, Speedy Transport CEO Jared Martin, said Fulton was celebrating his 11th wedding anniversary on the day of the crash.
In addition to the driver, the workers killed were: Jose Mercedes Valdiviezo-Taboa, 49, Cesar Augusto Sanchez-Palacios, 53, Enrique Arturo Leon, 47, Corsino Jaramillo, 47, Mario Abril, 48, Oscar Compomanes-Corzo, Juan Castillo, Elvio Bravo-Suncion and Fernando Correa.
Police are still trying to determine the ages of four of the victims.
Three people from the van survived and remain in hospital. Edgar Sulla-Puma, 26, was airlifted from the crash site to Hamilton General Hospital, where he is in critical condition. Juan Ariza, 35, is in critical condition in hospital in Stratford.
Javier Abelardo Alba-Medina, 38, is in fair condition at London Health Sciences Centre.
The van was capable of carrying 15 people and Ontario law requires the driver of a vehicle that transports more than 11 passengers hold at least a class F licence, but the driver had only a regular G licence, police said.
"This tragedy underscores the importance of maintaining safe driving practices at all times," Cain said. "As we've seen tragically in this case, failure to follow the rules of the road can have a grievous and regrettable impact on lives."
The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board is offering coverage for families of the victims, including the costs of repatriating their bodies to Peru and paying health-care expenses through Ontario's health insurance for the survivors in hospital.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union and the Agriculture Workers Alliance have set up a fund to assist the workers' families and the family of the truck driver. Donations can be made through PayPal or TD Canada Trust.
The Township of Perth East has also set up an account in trust to assist families of the victims and donations to that fund can be made at any CIBC branch.
A non-denominational prayer service will be held Friday evening for the victims at 7 p.m. at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Stratford. The Diocese of London says the service is for victims of the crash and their families, as well as to recognize emergency personnel.
— By Allison Jones in Toronto.
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