A cry rang out among University of Victoria students as the bus they were on skidded off a logging road and down an embankment, killing two students and injuring more than a dozen Friday night.
There were 45 students from a first-year biology class, two teaching assistants, and one driver on the bus, which was bound for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on the Island’s west coast.
“There was a collective scream,” said student AJ Wasserman. “I saw branches and rocks in my window and turned and covered my head.” Bodies toppled on top of one another.
The bus was travelling on a gravel logging road near the Carmanah Main Junction on Bamfield Main, about 40 kilometres from Port Alberni.
The Wilson’s Transportation bus went down a steep embankment, landing on its side and roof.
The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Bodies of the students who died were removed from the scene on Saturday afternoon as a crew worked on pulling the bus out of a ravine. The road remained closed.
A bus carrying some of the survivors returned to the UVic campus about 3 p.m. Saturday. They were ushered into the University Centre, where they were met by families, friends and grief counsellors.
One person remained in hospital.
Janelle Shoihet, senior media relations officer for the RCMP in B.C., said police received a distress call from a remote location between Port Alberni and Bamfield just before 9:30 p.m. Friday. The call came from a satellite device registered to the University of Victoria.
Wasserman said the bus windows shattered in the crash, and broken glass and dirt fell on top of the students. “[The] window shattered against my head, someone got a window in their back,” said Wasserman, who received cuts to his head and arm.
Eyes closed and heads covered, the students waited until dirt stopped falling through the window frames.
“I was on the side that hit the ground so people came tumbling onto my side,” Wasserman said.
Those who weren’t trapped crawled out the windows. “We walked on the ceiling … and out the windshield of the bus.” The students were taken to hospital and did not learn about the deaths until after they were discharged, Wasserman said.
Port Alberni Fire Fire Chief Mike Owens said firefighters used a rope to reach one critically injured student, who had to be extricated from the bus.
Owens, who was speaking from Calgary, said it was a tough rescue for the firefighters.
“Any time that youth are involved it compounds the severity of the incident for responders from that aspect and the tragic outcome of the two individuals pronounced dead at the scene made this a really heartbreaking event for the responders,” he said.
Owens said it’s the only time he can recall that a Cormorant aircraft from 19 Wing Comox has been sent to a vehicle crash to assist.
The Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria received a call for assistance about 10 p.m., sending two Cormorant helicopters and one Buffalo search-and-rescue aircraft from 442 Squadron in Comox to help with the rescue effort.
“It’s pretty austere out there. Lots of trees, lots of hills, lots of rugged terrain, and the weather wasn’t really co-operating,” said navy Lt. Tony Wright, a public relations officer with JRCC.
The pilots couldn’t land the helicopters at the scene so ambulances took the injured to an airport in Port Alberni, he said. From there, three people were airlifted to hospital.
Two of them were in critical condition and one in serious condition, said Andrea Visscher, a spokeswoman for British Columbia Emergency Health Services.
Fourteen others in stable condition were taken by ground transportation to local hospitals, she said. Emergency Health Services was unable to provide an update on the conditions of any of the injured people.
A school bus drove 29 others away from the scene, she said.
Jennifer Dawn said her daughter was supposed to be on the trip but opted not to go. She said her heart is broken for the students and their families. “I’ve taken my kids to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and we’ve camped in Pachena numerous times,” she wrote in a social media post.
“I know how treacherous that road can be. Praying for everyone involved. They only just started their journey.”
In a statement, UVic confirmed that the students were headed to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
“Our heartfelt thoughts go out to the students’ families and loved ones, to whom we offer our sincerest condolences,” said Jamie Cassels, UVic’s president.
The research centre acts as a shared campus for several post-secondary institutions, according to its website.
An employee who answered the phone Saturday declined to comment on the centre’s programs or why the students were travelling there, but according to its website it offers summer field courses, as well as a five-course fall semester program in marine sciences. It also hosts students on field trips.
John Wilson, president and CEO of Wilson’s Group of Companies, said the bus company is “deeply saddened by the tragedy.”
He said the driver, whom he described as experienced, suffered non-life threatening injuries and has been released from hospital.
Wilson’s Transportation serves Greater Victoria and Vancouver Island. It operates over 140 vehicles, according to its website.
The bus involved was a 2001 Prevost XL2, Wilson said. It had been recently inspected and met all regulatory requirements, he said, adding that the bus was equipped with seat restraints.
“The safety of our passengers, staff and everyone on the road is our No. 1 priority here at Wilson’s,” he said.
The cause of the crash is not known, he said, adding that the company is co-operating with police in their investigation.
“Wilson’s has been transporting people safely throughout Vancouver Island for over 40 years and this is the first incident of this magnitude that we have ever experienced,” Wilson said. “We are all shocked by this. Rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to assist those affected.”
— With files from Pedro Arrais and The Canadian Press
Looking for more information or support?
Port Alberni Fire said any family members looking for additional information can contact the RCMP dispatch at 250-723-2424.
UVic is offering counselling and other support to the students and others in the university community who might be affected.
Students who need support on the weekend can contact the university’s campus security services at 250-721-7599. Faculty and staff in need of support can contact the employee and family assistance program at 844-880-9142.