Alert is over. Latest info:
With hundreds of passengers aboard, many believed to be foreign tourists, a VIA Rail train remained under quarantine in a small northern Ontario town Friday afternoon after a 60-year-old woman was found dead in a passenger coach and six others complained of feeling unwell with a flu-like ailment.
It was unclear, however, whether the two sets of circumstances were connected.
“At present we do not believe they're related,” Ontario Provincial Police Staff Sergeant Rob Knox said.
He said the woman became ill on the train and subsequently died from an unknown illness. A second passenger who has been airlifted to Timmins and District Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a respiratory illness and listed in stable condition.
The five other ill passengers aboard the train are in stable condition and in good spirits, he said. The doctor aboard the train who is treating these passengers is “not concerned for their immediate health,” he added.
These passengers are in a separate car, isolated from others. He said there is no need to evacuate anyone from the immediate area surrounding the train.
“There is no evidence to support an outbreak of infectious disease aboard the train,” said Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams at a news conference. Mr. Williams said there was a confluence of three events unrelated to each other: the woman who died, the woman over 60 with a shortness of breath who was airlifted to hospital, and five tourists travelling together who felt ill before they boarded the train in Jasper, who were suffering from a viral-type condition.
He anticipates the train will begin rolling later Friday en route to Toronto, where it is expected to arrive Saturday morning.
A small army of emergency vehicles descended on the tiny hamlet Friday morning following reports that several passengers were suffering from the flu-like symptoms.
The train was on its final leg of a three-day trip from Vancouver to Toronto.
Staff Sgt. Knox said a doctor was on the train and had tried to help the victim after she became ill from a still-undetermined illness.
The woman later died, and the doctor turned his attention to other passengers who were also unwell but who were later described as being in stable condition and in good spirits.
The doctor said he saw no immediate connection between the woman's death and the other passengers' illnesses, Staff Sgt. Knox said.
Officials were obtaining medical documents and patient histories in search of clues as to what happened.
For several hours the emergency triggered widespread concern in Foleyet, a town of less than 400 people, and only emergency personnel wearing full protective gear were being allowed aboard the train.
"We're just going crazy,” said resident Carol Woodhouse, who works at a bunkhouse where train crews rest and eat.
“The rumours are flying, people are talking about SARS, nobody knows what's going on. Usually we only have two policemen here, now I think we've got at least 20.”
Ms. Woodhouse estimated the train – carrying 246 passengers and 30 crew – consisted of at least 30 coaches, but the illness is believed to have been contained within one or two cars.
The train was halted about 8:35 a.m. after the woman was discovered dead.
All the communities in which the train made stops were under scrutiny, Health Canada spokesman Alastair Sinclair said.
“Federal officials are collaborating with their provincial and regional counterparts to assess the situation and take action, as appropriate,” Mr. Sinclair said.
“The Minister of Health, Tony Clement, has been briefed and has directed his officials to notify and liaise with provincial, regional and local authorities, both in Foleyet and at all points along the route the train travelled. For the moment, Ontario is the lead on this.”
Constable Marc Depatie of the OPP said in an interview that officials were still trying to determine what caused the illnesses on the train and how they are linked to the fatality.
“We don't know if the element is viral or bacterial or a case of food poisoning.”
But he echoed Staff Sgt Knox in saying no crisis appeared to be at hand.
“There is no immediate threat to the persons who are either suffering with the flu-like symptoms or to other occupants of the train, so there is no emergency sense to this.”
The logistics, however, posed an obstacle, Constable Depatie said
“Geography is basically working against us because the persons who are best equipped to deal with this are miles from a small town in northern Ontario.”
Of the five passengers separated from the others, “They're experiencing flu-like symptoms but not to the extent that would require immediate extrication.”
Crime-scene investigators from OPP's South Porcupine detachment were also on hand but had not yet boarded the quarantined train.
“From an OPP perspective, all sudden deaths are deemed to be suspicious in nature until we determine the root cause,” Constable Depatie said. “So with that in mind, our crime unit is at the scene taking preliminary information down so we can perform an investigation of the event.”
Public health officials in British Columbia and Alberta were on standby, awaiting more information from Foleyet.
Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said officials had been alerted to possible concerns, but it wasn't clear if any health threat existed in B.C. or Alberta.
“We're on standby. We've been advised. They did contact us and we're waiting for further information,” she said.
“As soon as we get more information we'll know if there is anything we have to do here.”
Nothing amiss was reported in Jasper either, Aspen Regional Health Authority spokesman Scott Donaldson said.
Alberta Health is also investigating, since the train travelled across the province, making stops in both Jasper and Edmonton on Wednesday.
Helen Kelleher-Empey, general manager of Jasper Tourism and Commerce, said train travel is crucial to the resort town's economy and its 4,643 residents, especially as it gears up for the busy summer season when the population explodes.
“We are shocked and saddened that that someone has died,” Ms. Kelleher-Empey said
Foleyet lies about 100 kilometres southwest of Timmins. Town chairwoman Deborah DesRochers said the scene was initially chaotic as emergency vehicles arrived.
Others realized something unusual was happening when they saw the train stopped at the station around 9 a.m., local resident Fernande Dallaire said.
OPP cruisers, some with sirens blaring, cordoned off the local rail yard, she said.
Judy Bromley saw several ambulances show up and watched as a medical helicopter landed nearby and airlifted a female passenger away.
At one point, the OPP ordered the evacuation of a local railway rooming house, to turn it into a command centre and let healthy passengers use some of the 30-plus beds there.
But the plan was changed and passengers remained onboard the train cars.
Resident John Boudreau said he could see some sitting in the train's dining room, calmly having a meal.
The train was equipped for long-haul journeys, with sleeping berths and a fully equipped dining room, and it didn't appear to have immediate resupply needs, Mr. Boudreau said.
The normal duration of the Vancouver-Toronto journey is 30 minutes short of three days, and the trip has long been popular with foreign tourists, Ms. Woodhouse said.
A one-way “comfort class” ticket, which entails sitting up for the duration, sells for $591.15 according to VIA's current schedule.