Two University of Victoria students have died and three people are seriously injured following a bus rollover between Port Alberni and Bamfield on Vancouver Island Friday night, says the Royal Canadian Air Force.
On Saturday morning, Capt. David Burneau with the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre (JRCC) in Victoria said two passengers died on scene and another three with serious or critical injuries were airlifted to hospital in Victoria.
The JRCC said B.C. Emergency Health Services called the centre just after 10 p.m. PT Friday.
Burneau said the bus crashed on a gravel road near the Carmanah Main Junction, a few kilometres west of Francis Lake.
Denise Helm, the university's media relations director, said there were 45 UVic students and two teaching assistants on the bus. Helm said they were headed on a two-day field trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
B.C. Emergency Health Services said 17 people were taken to hospital — two people in critical condition, one person in serious condition, and 14 others in stable condition — and about another 30 were transported from the crash.
Burneau said some passengers were treated at a reception centre opened by Port Alberni, a city with fewer than 20,000 residents. On Saturday, the students were taken back to Victoria on another bus.
1 still in hospital
Camylle Arsenault said she was supposed to be on the bus as part of the trip, but elected not to go at the last minute in favour of spending her weekend in Victoria. She said she was shocked when she heard about the accident.
"I couldn't believe what had happened," she said. "I feel just horrible for the families."
By Saturday afternoon, University of Victoria provost Valerie Kuehne said one student is still in hospital. Kuehne also said the university is offering support services for students, staff and families.
Earlier in the day the university said on Twitter it is "deeply saddened" by the death of the students.
Barbara Hawkins, chair of the university's biology department, said the crash was a "terrible tragedy."
Driver was experienced
Wilson's Transportation is a charter bus company that serves Victoria and Vancouver Island, according to its website, and has been operating since 1962. It operates over 140 vehicles.
It issued a written statement confirming that one of its buses was involved and later held a news conference.
Owner John Wilson said the driver was experienced and had driver training certification. Wilson said the driver sustained non-life-threatening injuries and was released from hospital.
"We do not know what caused the incident at this time, we are co-operating fully and working with the RCMP and all those involved to help in whatever way we can," he said.
Wilson also said the bus — a 2001 Prevost XL 2 — had recently passed a safety inspection and was equipped with seatbelts.
Road safety concerns
Chief Councillor Robert Dennis, with the Huu-ay-aht First Nations in Bamfield and the surrounding area, said he and his wife came across the crash about 30 minutes after it happened.
The bus was on its side nearly 10 metres down an embankment when he arrived, and students were pulling themselves up to the road with a rope.
A line of trees had stopped the bus from sliding further, Dennis said.
"It's frightening," Dennis said. "We in Bamfield have known for quite some time that the safety issue on that road is one of our prime concerns."
Dennis said the first couple who came across the accident would have had to drive 45 minutes before reaching paramedics by phone. He said it took two hours for ambulances to arrive.
Wes Patterson, the deputy fire chief for the Port Alberni Fire Department, said people were still trapped in the bus when firefighters arrived.
"It was dark, it was rainy," he said. "The road is fairly rough, it's a gravel industrial road and so it takes a little bit more time to get out there."
There is no cellphone service on that stretch of the road, which is the primary route people use to get in and out of the small community of Bamfield, Dennis said.
It had been raining on and off that night, he said, and conditions on the narrow, gravel logging road aren't great at the best of times.
He said he has been calling for improvements to the road for years.
"I've been knocking on every Liberal government, every NDP government, to get our road fixed," he said.
Passengers housed in town
Port Alberni Chief Administrative Officer Tim Pley said the students on the bus who weren't injured were placed in hotels in Port Alberni for the night.
Sharie Minions, mayor of Port Alberni, said she is "really proud" of how city staff and others in the community stepped up to help.
They quickly opened an emergency centre, Minions said, and were able to feed the passengers and keep them warm. Later staff also helped the students get in touch with their families.
"It's a horrific accident," she said, adding that the city supports First Nation demands to have the road improved and better maintained.
Later Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted a message on Twitter offering his condolences to the victims and their families.
Earlier reports said the two passengers who died were airlifted to hospital, but Burneau later said it was the seriously injured passengers who were.
The JRCC deployed two helicopters and a search and rescue aircraft from Canadian Forces Base Comox to airlift patients from the scene.
In a tweet, the Port Alberni Fire Department says it also responded to the crash, along with RCMP.
The JRCC says it has no information on the cause of the crash.
The provincial government said that Transport Canada and RCMP Vancouver Island Traffic Services are investigating the crash.