POLITICS
02/26/2012 04:17 EST | Updated 04/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Passengers sent flying in Toronto-area train derailment that kills 3 engineers

BURLINGTON, Ont. - Terrified passengers were sent flying through the air along with their luggage when a Toronto-bound train derailed Sunday, killing three engineers and injuring 32 passengers — three of them seriously.

A slight "bump" followed by utter chaos was how one passenger described the harrowing crash of train No. 92.

The time between the train leaving the tracks and it slamming to the ground was only about 10 seconds, but it felt like "forever," said Deanna Villella of Welland, Ont.

"The train just flipped on its side and it just kept going. I didn't know what was happening," Villella said.

"Everybody's stuff was flying by and people were flying by. Everything was crashing and people were screaming."

The six-car train, which had originated in Niagara Falls, Ont., derailed at 3:30 p.m. in Burlington — about 100 metres from where a freight train derailed some four years ago.

Area residents described a chaotic scene of emergency vehicles, sirens blaring and helicopters buzzing overhead one of Canada's busiest rail corridors.

The locomotive and one passenger car flipped onto their sides and crashed into a small trackside building. Another passenger car was leaning precariously, making for a frantic rescue operation. There was concern that diesel fuel would leak from the locomotive, but that didn't occur.

Three remaining cars were upright and vacant.

The three dead Via engineers — one a trainee — were riding in the cab of the locomotive. When asked if the trainee was the one driving, emergency officials said they didn't have that information.

A fourth Via worker was also injured.

Amid the twisted metal and debris emergency crews scrambled to pull passengers to safety. Firefighters cut into the metal frames of the cars and removed windows. Some passengers were carried away on boards and stretchers while others, looking dazed and battered, were led out of the wreckage by emergency workers.

"It was scary," said Catherine, who was among passengers were weren't injured and arrived at Toronto's Union Station by shuttle bus.

"The cars in front of us were fully off the tracks — ours was half off the tracks at the end. It was hard to get out, there was no ground," said the woman, who declined to give her last name.

The train's manifest listed 75 passengers. Although only 50 had been located as of Sunday night, Halton Police Chief Gary Crowell said it wasn't clear that the manifest was accurate. A sweep of the area did not turn up any injured passengers.

"Quite often people will self-evacuate," he said. "They'll determine that they don't need to stay at the site or require minimal treatment and will walk away."

The bodies of the three engineers were removed from the wreckage around 8 p.m. Their names weren't immediately released pending notification of family.

Via's chief operating officer called the derailment "tragic."

"We're a relatively small company, we're a family, we know everyone by name," John Marginson said at the scene. "We certainly feel for the families of the colleagues that we lost."

Marginson called the wreckage a "very powerful scene to say the least."

In the aftermath emergency officials reported that three passengers were airlifted to hospital. Later Sunday night they confirmed three people were seriously injured — one with a heart attack, another with a broken leg and the third with a back injury — but only one was airlifted to hospital.

A father and son were transported to Hamilton General Hospital, but the boy was discharged.

Two patients were in serious but stable condition at the hospital.

The other injured passengers were either treated at the scene or sent to local hospitals.

"We've seen 20 people, the vast majority of them were adults. We have had some discharged already," said Mario Joannette, spokesman for Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington.

"The people we've seen for the most part had injuries that were minor to serious."

The Transportation Safety Board expected to have at least six investigators at the scene by Monday, said spokesman Chris Krepski.

"They are gathering information as to what the train was doing just prior to the accident," said Krepski, who added it's too early to speculate on the cause.

A key piece of evidence will be the train's equivalent of a black box, which recorded the event.

Transport Minister Debis Lebel said his ministry was "co-operating fully" with the Transportation Safety Board and had appointed an observer to the investigation.

He added that since the three fatalities were VIA employees, Transport Canada would conduct an investigation under the Labour code into the circumstances of the incident.

"On behalf of Transport Canada, I would like to convey my condolences to the families of those killed in this tragic accident," he said in a statement.

The train came off the tracks at Plains Road and King Road near Aldershot station. It was not immediately known how fast the train was travelling, and conditions were clear and dry at the time.

When Matt Kernaghan heard about the crash, he immediately guessed where it had happened, saying he's seen the aftermath of two previous derailments there.

"A lot of trains come through here, so yeah, maybe it's just the frequency of trains that causes the derailments," he said.

"It'll be on my mind when I ride the train from now on that it can derail at any minute," he said, adding he still thinks the train is safer than driving.

Dorthy Beattie, who lives near the crash site, said she started hearing helicopters overhead around 3:30 p.m.

"I knew there was something amiss but I didn't know what and I honestly did not hear it derailing," Beattie said.

"So I had a little walk out just to have a look and it's like a World War Three zone around here."

Highway 403 was shut down in the area and GO Transit said its commuter trains were being turned back at Burlington for an "extended period."

The rail corridor carries both freight and passenger trains and bustles with rush-hour commuter traffic during the weekday.

Via is asking people seeking information about passengers on the train to call 1-888-842-6141.

— With files from Romina Maurino and Keith Leslie