Hearts ache for UVic students who died in bus crash

Natalia Thiessen didn’t know Emma Machado well.

The two students were both in their first few weeks at the University of Victoria and they had a couple of classes together.

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But what struck Thiessen was how open and friendly Machado was. She immediately introduced herself when the two ended up sitting beside each other in class.

“She was a bright, cheery wonderful person,” Thiessen said.

The two first-year biology students had even talked about going on the same trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre last Friday, but Thiessen had other commitments and was unable to go.

On Tuesday, she was among more than 300 people who crowded into the BiblioCafé at UVic to support one another in the wake of a bus crash that killed Machado of Winnipeg and fellow biology student John Geerdes from Iowa City, Iowa.

The two 18-year-olds died when a Wilson’s Transportation charter coach bus carrying 45 students and two teaching assistants crashed on a gravel road between Port Alberni and Bamfield late Friday.

Thiessen said she decided to attend Tuesday’s gathering because she wanted to “be a part of the community.”

UVic president Jamie Cassels told the crowd that he knows many people share his “shock and deep sense of sorrow” in the wake of the terrible crash.

“As this university’s president and as a father, my heart aches for the families, the loved ones, the friends, the classmates of the two students who died on Friday,” he said. “Emma and John were taken far too soon, and we are so sorry for that loss.”

Cassels and Jonathan Granirer, director of outreach and university relations with the students’ society, encouraged people to reach out for support if they need it.

“Community is so important, and if you’re lucky enough to have one, it’s time to check in with them,” Granirer said. “And if you’re still struggling to find one, I’d recommend that you come to the [students’ society] because we do have communities for each and every one of you.”

Earlier Tuesday, friends and family remembered Machado as a compassionate and caring young woman.

She was an activist and a role model especially adored by younger students at Balmoral Hall School, an independent girls school in the heart of Winnipeg, said Jennifer Pawluk, the school’s communications specialist. “That’s how we’ll remember her.”

An active volunteer at the school that values community service, Machado also took part in service and learning expeditions to places such as Costa Rica.

“She genuinely cared about the causes she allied herself with and I think she was such an excellent role model to our younger students in so many ways — in the classroom, outside of the classroom and beyond in her plans for post-secondary life,” said Pawluk.

Geerdes, who graduated from Iowa City High School this year before enrolling at the University of Victoria, was remembered on Monday as a much-loved student and talented soccer player.

John Bacon, Geerdes’s former principal, emailed parents and students on Saturday after learning about the crash and informing them of a crisis team providing counselling to the high school’s 1,600 students. Bacon said Geerdes has four siblings.

Jose Michel Fajardo, of the IC City High Men’s Soccer association, said Geerdes was beloved by teammates and students at the school.

“John was truly an amazing, kind, intelligent, talented, special human being,” said Fajardo. “I know I speak for all of us when I say that our deepest thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

The Machado family — mother, Ethel MacIntosh, father, Jose Machado and older sister, Sam Machado — were at the UVic campus Tuesday.

Emma’s cousin, Cristina Gaucher, said in a Facebook post that the tragedy had left her heartbroken.

“When I went to visit my family this summer with my brother in Winnipeg, little did I know that this would be the last time that I would get to spend with my sweet cousin Emma,” she wrote. “We are so happy that we got to spend that precious time with her.

“Hold onto your loved ones because you just never know where life may lead.”

Gaucher said that even when Machado was little, she could brighten up a room with her positive, happy energy. “She was beautiful, funny, intelligent and so loving. I will miss her forever.”

Machado spent the past summer working as a day camp leader at the Manitoba Museum, where she had been a volunteer for at least five years. “She was just absolutely wonderful, honestly, in every single way,” said Rachel Erickson, the museum’s manager of learning and engagement. “She was just so easy-going and professional and completely wise beyond her years.”

Erickson said Machado and her fellow camp leaders put in long days all summer without complaint. “I knew I could go down there every morning and she would be just pumped, happy to be there and positive. I just never had to worry.

“You know, I have her name badge sitting here, waiting for next summer, and I can’t even believe it.”

At her former school, Machado was known as what’s affectionately and proudly called a “lifer.” In an independent school that serves students age from two years (in a child-care program) to Grade 12, lifers are students who remain at the school from the early years on.

Machado graduated in June and was full of excitement for her future at the University of Victoria.

“She was very excited to study oceanography and marine biology and Earth science and the many things that program offers,” said Pawluk. “Clearly, it was something she was very much looking forward to.”

“We are all grieving this horrible loss and feeling it quite acutely,” said Pawluk.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

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