‘It happened so fast’: Survivors of fatal B.C. bus rollover question why highway wasn’t closed

Two men who survived a deadly bus crash along Highway 97C in B.C.’s Southern Interior are wondering why the road was not closed and the company chose to drive when conditions were so poor.

The crash on Christmas Eve happened shortly after 6 p.m., east of Merritt, near the Loon Lake exit as the bus made its way from Kelowna to Vancouver. Video from the scene showed the westbound bus on its side.

Four people were confirmed dead on Sunday by police.

Passenger Justin McClelland says he was falling asleep when he heard someone yell and the bus suddenly toppled on its side.

“It happened so fast,” he said. “One of the guys behind us opened up the roof hatches for us… I was in shock. I’ve never been through a scenario like that before. It’s pretty scary.”

Gurkamal Rathore was awake when he noticed the bus began to slide.

“It just happened so quick. I guess five, three seconds and next thing I know, we’re on our side,” he said, adding the crash made him lose his glasses.

“It’s just complete disorientation because we’ve flipped over onto our side. So I was trying to figure out where exactly I was facing, was it up, down, left, right.”

Police confirmed the bus, driven by the company Ebus, rolled onto its passenger side and came to a stop in the eastbound lanes.

McClelland says pedestrians stopped to help and offered warm jackets as people began to tend to the injured.

“We were all taking our coats off to help the wounded, keep them warm. Taking scarves off, applying pressure to wounds or whatever you can do to help,” he said, adding emergency crews arrived quickly.

The Interior Health Authority (IHA) said Sunday that 52 patients were transported to four area hospitals, 36 of whom were assessed and treated for injuries that ranged from serious to minor.

As of Monday, IHA said seven patients remain in hospital with non-life threatening injuries.

Rathore was left with stitches on his finger and head. Both men were originally supposed to fly to their destinations but wound up on the bus when their flights were cancelled.

McClelland says he thinks his seatbelt saved his life. He says the road was “very slippery” and questions why anyone was out driving.

“I don’t think any buses should have been on the road at all with people,” he said, adding the road should have been closed. “Or the bus should have had chains on (the wheels).”

Both McClelland and Rathore think the bus was going too fast for the conditions. Rathore says the bus slid a couple of times before the crash.

“It should have been closed and I think the driver, Ebus, should have recognized that the roads were terrible and that bus should not have been on the highway.”

On Sunday, police stated, “road conditions were described as very poor with ice and snow on the road surface along with rain and hail falling.”

Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, Rob Fleming issued a statement on Monday regarding the incident and ongoing work on highways.

“Our thoughts are with everyone impacted by this tragic event, and I’m grateful to all of the first responders and health care workers caring for those affected,” the statement read. “There were winter driving conditions on the Connector over the weekend and the RCMP is continuing to investigate what happened in this specific case. We’ll know more once the RCMP has completed their work.”

Highway maintenance crews continue to use all available equipment to plow, sand and salt highways, Fleming said.

“We urge any drivers who must travel to use extreme caution and drive to conditions.”

McClelland credits Emergency Management BC and the Best Western hotel in Merritt for helping people find a place to stay.

He says Ebus has not reached out to him and he spent an hour trying to get through to the company to find out how he could get home, where his luggage is and to ask about reimbursement.

Global News also reached out to Ebus, which said there were 47 people on board — 46 passengers and one driver — a different number than the 52 IHA said.

Ebus said its drivers are fully trained for winter conditions.

“I would like to extend our deepest condolences to families and loved ones so heavily impacted by this tragic event last night,” said Ebus president and chief operating officer Tom Jezersek in a statement Sunday.

“Our thoughts and sympathy are with those injured and grieving at this time. We will continue co-operating with RCMP in their investigation and communicate information when able.

“Thank you to the first responders, health-care workers and everyone providing support.”

Police said if you witnessed the crash or have dash-cam video of the bus prior to the collision, please contact your local RCMP detachment.

A phone line was set up on Saturday night for those seeking information on family members involved in the crash. That number is 250-545-2211.

The Ministry of Transportation said in a statement that “the incident is under active investigation by the RCMP, and the ministry is unable to provide further comment at this time.”

– With files from Amy Judd and Doyle Potenteau.

&copy 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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