UVic students grappling with deaths of peers after fatal bus crash

University of Victoria students are grappling with the sudden deaths of two of their peers in a bus crash Friday evening en route to a marine research centre.

Forty-five students and two teaching assistants were aboard the bus to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre when it went off a gravel road and down an embankment about 40 kilometres from Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, according to a statement from the university.

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Two students, whose identities have yet to be made public, died at the scene and 17 others were transported to hospital in varying conditions.

John Kang, an events organizer with the university's biology undergraduate society, said he learned about the crash from friends on social media. On the morning after the crash he was leading a student birdwatching trip to Pedder Bay, about 30 kilometres south-west of Victoria.

The students talked about the crash on the way to Pedder Bay, he said, and some were upset.

"It was pretty scary," said Kang, who added one of his friends was on the bus.

"So, I was a bit worried," he said. He assumes his friend is OK, but hasn't had contact yet.

"I'm just kind of waiting, giving them some space."

Meanwhile, University of Victoria counsellors and other staff met with students and their families throughout Saturday afternoon to provide support, a statement said.

It offered a gathering space for families to reunite with their children, it said, and university president Jamie Cassels met with students and their families.

The school opened counselling services for students seeking help Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the University Centre.

"The entire university is coming together to help at this difficult time," the statement said, adding the school will make allowances and provide additional support for students to help them in their studies.

Kang is planning to make his first trip to the Bamfield centre in October.

The research centre acts as a shared campus of several post-secondary institutions, including the University of Victoria, and offers summer field courses, a five-course fall semester program and field trips.

Kang hopes some of the road issues are fixed before his visit. Some have criticized the narrow, gravel road to be dangerous, and a local First Nations community and the city of Port Alberni have called on the provincial government for years to enhance the quality of the 85-kilometre logging road where the crash occurred.

A spokesperson for the provincial forestry ministry said Saturday that the ministry was unable to comment pending the ongoing investigation.

The driver of the bus is "experienced" and holds "driver-training certification," according to a statement from The Wilson's Group, which owns Wilson's Transportation Ltd., whose 2001 Prevost XL2 bus was the one in the accident. The driver sustained non-life threatening injuries and has been released from the hospital, it said.

The bus, which was equipped with seat restraints, was recently inspected and passed all regulatory requirements, according to the statement.

"We do not know what the cause of the incident is at this point," said the company, adding it is co-operating and working with the RCMP to help aid the investigation.

Brendan McCullough, owner of Victoria-based McCullough Coach Lines, knows the challenges of the route to Bamfield. He said he no longer books charters there because he doesn't believe newer-model coaches can handle the "pitching and banging."

On one memorable trip in 2010 while he was driving two dozen high-school students from Edmonton to the Bamfield centre, he said heavy rains forced him to take multiple detours on the logging roads until they were eventually forced to stop for the night.

There was no cellular phone service to call for help, so in the morning McCullough said he used a bicycle he kept in the bus to ride several hours until he found a road construction contractor. The contractor was able to get a crew to fix the road so they could drive the bus out.

"It's just not a well travelled route," McCullough said.

— By Aleksandra Sagan in Vancouver, with files from Rob Drinkwater

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