It’s been 13 years since two veteran Tofino paramedics lost their lives when the ambulance they were in went off the road and plunged more than 100 feet down the cliff into Kennedy Lake. On Oct. 19 dozens of paramedics from Tofino and around the province gathered at the site on the 13th anniversary to dedicate a memorial stone at the site of the accident.
Much has changed since that fateful day. The section of road where the accident occurred no longer exists. The provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure funded a major highway improvement project at Kennedy Lake Hill that widened and regraded the steep, curvy section of road - largely because of this incident and pressure from the BC Ambulance Service.
It was on October 19, 2010 when Tofino Ambulance Paramedics, Jo-Ann Fuller, 59, and Ivan Polivka, 65, were returning to Tofino after transferring a patient to West Coast General Hospital in Port Alberni. According to the former B.C. coroner Lyn Blenkinsop, the paramedics were paged at 1:36 a.m. to transfer the patient. They had been off duty for five hours before they were paged.
The patient transfer was uneventful, but on their return trip to Tofino, at the windy section above Kennedy Lake, the accident happened. The ambulance “drifted into concrete barrier that was just 37 centimetres -- or 14 inches -- high located at the top of a 33-metre cliff,” said Blenkinsop in her report.
"The ambulance then rode the concrete barrier with both right-side tires over the edge," she said. "Near the end of the barrier, the ambulance overbalanced and slipped off to the right, tumbling down the embankment to the lake."
Later that morning the ambulance was discovered submerged under 10 metres of water. Fuller was found in the driver's seat with her seat belt on, while Polivka was found unrestrained and in the back of the ambulance, where it is believed he had been sleeping.
Fuller was the unit chief at the Tofino ambulance station and had worked with the service for 23 years. The coroner determined she had drowned. Polivka died of head and chest trauma. He was a veteran of 14 years.
The coroner cited driver fatigue as a factor in the accident, believing that Fuller may have fallen asleep at the wheel.
On Thursday October 19, 2023, a small gathering was held at the newly constructed rest area on Kennedy Hill to remember Fuller and Polivka. Representatives from BC Emergency Health Services and the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, along with community members, gathered at the site on Highway 4 to dedicate a memorial marker honouring the Tofino paramedics.
It was 13 years to the day that Jo-Ann and Ivan lost their lives.
In 2018, when the Kennedy Hill Safety Improvement Project began, the small roadside memorial to Jo-Ann and Ivan was moved to the Tofino Ambulance station.
According to the BC Emergency Health Services, a new memorial boulder was unveiled in 2020 at the ambulance station on the 10th anniversary of the accident. The memorial was moved to its permanent location on Highway 4 once the road improvement project was complete.
The event started with an honor guard as dozens of BC Emergency Health Services workers and their supporters followed a lone piper from the lookout up the hill to memorial, on the side of the highway above Kennedy Lake.
Tla-o-qui-aht elder Levi Martin was there to offer a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth prayer. As he chanted, two ravens flew over the crowd to the shore of Kennedy Lake and back to the forest.
Natalie Dennis, an Ahousaht member and a BC Emergency Health Services manager, said Jo-Ann and Ivan were incredible people and well-known in the community. Because of people like them, Dennis said she was honoured to be part of the group of paramedics.
BCEHS Executive Vice-President and Chief Ambulance Officer Leanne Heppell said it was important to honor Jo-Anne and Ivan, their legacy, services and sacrifices to the community.
“It was a tragedy that shook the community and BC Health Emergency Services – we will never forget,” she vowed.
She went on to say that her heart goes out to the families.
Fred Webber, stepson of Polivka, was thanked for remaining involved in memorializing Jo-Ann and Ivan.
“I’ve been there since the beginning,” he told Ha-Shilth-Sa.
He was part of the procession in which 5,000 emergency services workers from across Canada honoured Fuller and Polivka in Tofino following the accident. He adopted Polivka’s cat, giving it a home for the remainder of its life.
The BC Ambulance Service said in a statement that it conducted an internal investigation after the accident and made five recommendations, all of which have now been implemented.
The service said it informed the provincial government about the state of the highway, told staff about the need to use seat belts while in the back of ambulances, and raised awareness with drivers about the hazards of Highway 4 and similar road sections.
It has also implemented policies and scheduling protocols for rest periods.
“They saved and touched countless lives over the course of their careers. Their deaths devastated their communities and deeply affected many at BCEHS who lost two dedicated and compassionate colleagues and friends,” BCEHS stated.
An ambulance based in Tofino will also now bear a memorial marker with Jo-Ann and Ivan’s names.