The young workers were returning home from their night shift doing backbreaking work catching chickens on local poultry farms. Then, just before 9 a.m., their van veered inexplicably into oncoming traffic.
The head-on impact with a school bus was so violent, the fronts of both vehicles all but disappeared. By Thursdsay, five farm labourers in their 20s and 30s were dead and three others critically wounded.
The collision at a wind-buffeted intersection in Quebec’s Lanaudière region is under investigation by police, but authorities said the van’s driver, who was killed, may have fallen asleep at the wheel after working all night.
“That is one of the main hypotheses we’re working on,” Sgt. Benoît Richard of the Quebec provincial police said at the crash site, an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal.
Police identified the victims as Pierre-Luc Martel, 22, Jocelyn Beauchamps, 28, Sébastien Cormier, 30, Steeve Larochelle, 32, and Gilles Chartier, 26.
Moments after the smash-up, witnesses’ worst fears were dispelled: The 13 high-school students heading to Pierre-de-Lestage secondary school were unharmed. Those who were shaken up were seen by psychologists and social workers at a local hospital.
One eyewitness who helped at the crash, 53-year-old Alain Charlebois, said the scene was “a vision of horror.” Police haven’t ruled out mechanical problems or speed as factors at what is described by locals as a dangerous crossroads on curve in the highway.
The eight male workers in the 12-seat Ford Econoline van worked for a business that acts as one of the lesser-known links in the agricultural chain. The company takes employees from farm to farm picking up chickens headed for slaughter.
The work is done at night to make it easier to catch the poultry. Workers enter dimly lit chicken coops and stoop over to catch thousands of birds by hand; they place them in crates that are loaded on transport trucks for the abattoir. “It’s a difficult job and it’s physically demanding,” said Christian Dauth of the federation of Quebec poultry farmers. The work is done at night “because the birds are calmer.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada said the accident raises questions about vehicle safety and inspection involving the transport of farm workers. In a statement, the union called the accident “just the latest tragedy involving farm workers injured or killed while being trucked to or from Canadian agriculture operations.”
The company involved in Wednesday’s crash, Pigeon 2006 Inc., is one of about 10 such brokers that act as middlemen between chicken farmers and slaughterhouses in Quebec. It is not known whether its van was licensed as a transport vehicle.
Hours after the crash, long after ambulances whisked away the dead and wounded, debris from the school bus lay scattered along the snow-edged highway.