Fatal bus crash points to ‘immediate’ attention needed for Bamfield road, says Huu-ay-aht

Eric Plummer, September 16, 2019

Last Friday emergency responders helped survivors of a bus crash on the road to Bamfield using a rope system. Two UVic students died in the incident. (Port Alberni Fire Department/Twitter photo)

Bamfield, BC — 

In the aftermath of a bus crash that claimed the lives of two UVic students, a Barclay Sound First Nation that regularly uses the road to Bamfield is stressing the need to improve the route.

On the night of Friday, Sept. 13 a bus carrying 48 people lost control on the logging road to Bamfield, approximately 40 kilometres south of Port Alberni near the Carmanah Main Junction. On a weekend field trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, the bus was transporting 45 University of Victoria students, two teaching assistants and the driver. The overturned vehicle slid down an embankment, killing two students at the scene.

The Port Alberni Fire Department received a call at 9:45 p.m., said Deputy Fire Chief Wes Patterson, and arrived on the scene after approximately an hour of travelling down the dirt and gravel road.

“It was approximately 20 feet down an embankment on its side and resting up against some trees,” he said.

Firefighters worked with other emergency personnel at the scene to help victims out of the bus using a rope.

Three helicopters were deployed from the Canadian Forces Base in Comox, which transported three seriously injured people to hospital in Victoria.

The bus was operated by Wilson’s Group, which stated that the vehicle “was recently inspected and passed all regulatory requirements and was equipped with seat restraints.”

“The driver is an experienced driver, with driver training certification. He sustained non-life-threatening injuries and has been released from hospital,” said the bus charter company. “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. We are all shocked by this.”

According to reports from the scene, the accident was first discovered by a passerby, who had to drive further to call 911. Most of the 80-kilometre logging road does not have cellular service.

“Our radio system doesn’t allow us to cover the whole Bamfield stretch with radio communication,” said Patterson, whose department is dispatched to accidents on the road several times a year. “Thankfully RCMP do have a more robust radio system and they were able to relay information back and forth between the detachment.”

For years those who live in communities at the southern edge of Barkley sound have lobbied the provincial government to improve the winding road that serves as the only land route to the communities of Bamfield and Anacla, which have respective populations of approximately 200 and 120. Last year local representatives met with provincial ministers to consider chip sealing the road, which entails applying a combination of asphalt and a fine aggregate of gravel and sand. This carries an estimated cost of $50-75 million, and no improvement have been announced since.

Each year the province invests at least $400,000 to maintain the road, which becomes dusty in dry conditions and easily forms potholes in the rain.

Robert Dennis Sr., who is chief councillor of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations, lives in Anacla and regularly relies on the road to Port Alberni and other urban centres. He assisted on Sept. 13 when he encountered the accident, and offered condolences to those involved in the incident on behalf of the First Nation.

“I believe this incident highlights the need for an immediate meeting with the province to discuss what can be done to ensure there is a safe route between Bamfield and Port Alberni,” said Dennis. “Safety on this road is one of our primary concerns as a nation. Too many lives have already been lost.”

On Monday, Sept. 16, University of Victoria President Jamie Cassels addressed the tragedy.

“These bright young people were united in their desire to experience the research and learning possibilities on Vancouver Island’s west coast. My heartfelt condolences go out to them and their loved ones,” he said in a statement. “University staff from several departments worked long hours throughout the weekend to meet with the students and their families and to provide for their immediate and ongoing needs.”