Renewed calls to make Bamfield road safer in wake of bus crash

Port Alberni’s mayor says there’s no doubt the treacherous state of Bamfield Main logging road contributed to a bus crash Friday that killed two University of Victoria students.

“It’s tragic we had to get to this point to see the consequences of what can happen when a road is not in proper condition,” said Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions. “This accident is a perfect example of why improvements need to be made to that road — it’s narrow, its winding, and at night, especially a rainy night, it’s dark and difficult to see,” said Minions. “We are going to keep pushing until we see improvements to that road.”

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Two first-year University of Victoria students, John Geerdes of Iowa City, Iowa, and Emma Machado of Winnipeg, both 18, died when their charter coach bus bound for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, rolled sideways about six metres down an embankment off Bamfield Main at about 9:30 p.m. on Friday.

UVic student A.J. Wasserman who was on the bus, carrying 45 students and two teaching assistants, saw the headlights of an oncoming car before the bus slid off the road.

Wilson’s Transportation says its driver was experienced and the bus had seatbelts though Wasserman thought as few as two people were wearing them. Windows blew out and students toppled on one another. Two students died at the scene and three were flown to Victoria General Hospital; one remains there. More than a dozen other students were injured.

Port Alberni Fire Department Deputy Chief Wes Patterson said firefighters were called shortly after the crash. It was rainy and foggy, he said. It took firefighters more than an hour to get to the site, about 36 kilometres away.

At issue is a narrow, winding and at times treacherous stretch of gravel logging road that in the past was used almost exclusively by logging trucks and has now become a road increasingly used by residents, tourists and charter buses on a daily basis, said Minions.

“We’ve been asking for two decades now to have the road paved between Port Alberni and Bamfield but the province has been saying no because it’s not their road,” Huu-ay-aht chief councillor Robert Dennis.

“The province has to be pushed on this issue,” said Dennis. “It’s their call. It’s their call whether they want to redesignate the road and make it a public road and upgrade it to a safe road standard.”

The district and the Huu-ay-aht First Nations has asked the province for several years to pave and widen it and they say the Transportation Ministry has essentially told them it’s a private logging road.

Port Alberni’s mayor said logging companies are responsible for maintaining the road but that wasn’t the issue on Friday. The road was graded a day earlier, said Minions.

The district wants the road paved and in the long term widened and lighted by the province.

Minions wrote to the premier, copying Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, on April 5, saying “a journey on Bamfield Main is often unsafe and unpredictable, resulting in accidents, injuries, damage to vehicles or restricted road access.” She asked for timely upgrades.

“At the end of the day, regardless of what happened with both of the vehicles, I have no doubt in my mind that the condition of the road and the type of road it is in general contributed to this tragedy — that’s the big thing,” Minions said. “We don’t want to see this happen again.”

Dennis said chip sealing the road has been costed at $25 million. “What’s $25 million?”

Trevena responded on behalf of the premier in May saying that the Transportation Ministry has a long-standing agreement with the logging companies who own “the greater balance of the road.”

“We provide supplementary funding of approximately $452,000 annually, and they are ultimately responsible for ensuring the route is maintained,” wrote Trevena.

“That’s how they’ve been treating us — they’ve been dismissing our issue of paving that road,” said Dennis. “We would like the province to take over that road and pave it rather than leaving it designated as private service road.”

Dennis said if someone wants to do something, they do it, and if not, they find one thousand excuses not to: “The province is in that latter category. They keep coming up with excuses why they can’t do it rather than looking at the safety of the people that live out here. They keep saying ‘No.’ ”

Discussions have taken place with the Ministry of Transportation, as well as the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation and also the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, said Dennis. Studies have been done and technical work about the feasibility of the chip sealing — a pavement surface treatment that combines one or more layers of asphalt with crushed rock.

Trevena wasn’t available for an interview on Monday but said in a statement that ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine if safety improvements could be made.

“The situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations.”

If the province isn’t going to designate the road public and pave it, the province should at least tell the First Nations community: “Let us know rather than just pulling us along making us think something good is going to happen,” said Dennis.

Dennis was driving on the road Friday when he came upon the scene shortly after the crash. He said the bus was overturned and about six to nine metres down an embankment, resting against trees that stopped it from rolling further.

Western Forest Products said Monday that given Bamfield Road is classified a logging road, “Western has maintained the road while supporting local communities’ requests to upgrade the designation of the Bamfield Road.”

UVic has one other trip at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre this fall term in late October. The university said there are no plans to cancel this trip.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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