Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice said one of the deceased in Friday’s fatal crash involving the Humboldt Broncos bus was misidentified partly because the players all looked similar.
Ministry spokesperson Drew Wilby said the coroner’s office mistook the body of 18-year-old goalie Parker Tobin from Stony Plain, Alta., for that of defenceman Xavier LaBelle, an 18-year-old from Saskatoon, Sask.
“A lot of these boys looked alike,” Wilby said in a news conference Monday morning.
“They had the blond hair that was supportive of their team’s playoff run, they’re very similar builds, they’re all very similar ages and they’re very athletic of course as they are Junior A hockey players.”
LaBelle is injured but alive, and Tobin is among the 15 people who died when the bus carrying the junior hockey team collided with a semi truck in northeastern Saskatchewan on Friday.
Later Monday, a spokesperson acting on behalf of the families of Tobin and Labelle issued a statement in reaction to the misidentification, saying they are grieving together.
“They hope the focus will remain on those grieving and those recovering, not the confusion in an unimaginable tragedy,” reads the statement. It went on to ask for privacy from the media and those using social media networks.
Wilby said while there are many ways of identifying victims, the most accurate method is through dental records — which he added takes time.
“You have to get them from the location of wherever that dentist may be. These boys are from all over the Prairies and into B.C., so that would have taken some time.”
WATCH BELOW: Coroner’s Office says “a lot of variables” why misidentification can happen:
He said the coroner’s office was following a standard procedure to identify the victims but it was difficult since the players had all dyed their hair blond for the playoff run, were all around the same age and had the same athletic build.
“We went on the process we established — by talking to numerous agencies, numerous people — and believe that positive identification had been done appropriately.”
The mistake was discovered Sunday night, after thousands of people gathered in Humboldt for an emotional vigil – and families were contacted overnight. Wilby could not say how exactly the mistake was discovered, but said the province was now confident the identities are correct.
GALLERY: Photos from the Sunday night vigil at the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos, to honour the victims of a fatal bus crash.
Wilby said if people are angry at the mistake, it would be an understandable reaction.
“I would encourage them to understand that this is a process —that it’s difficult on everyone involved, most understandably the families and those directly affected, absolutely. That our staff have been working hard on this; that they’ve been trying to do the work that needs to be done and identify everyone.
“It is unprecedented circumstances in the province’s history to have this level of tragedy in one incident. So I would encourage them to find some level of understanding on that and hopefully that’s enough for now.”
Wilby confirmed before the mistake was discovered, the family of Xavier LaBelle was involved in the process of identifying the body over the weekend — but could not elaborate on how they specifically took part.
“I can confirm they were involved in the process. They were able to be at the, the – you know, the terminology I use is difficult and I don’t want to sound flippant, but the ‘makeshift morgue’ that we had set up in Saskatoon. They were able to attend with all the other families on Saturday afternoon … in terms of the level of conversation and what went from there, I’m not at liberty to provide that, but yes, they were involved in the identification of their son.”
Xavier LaBelle’s current condition is not known. Wilby apologized for not being able to give more information, but said patient privacy rules prevented him from providing specific details.
“The fact that he is an active patient at Royal University Hospital, I am not able to say much. That’s all governed by health information and I apologize for that. I know that’s often a default of government to say ‘because of privacy we can’t say much,’ but I truly mean that in this case. That would be up to his family to provide any information that they see fit.”
Fifteen people were injured in the collision. Over the weekend, Tobin’s family had tweeted that their son was alive.
“This is one of the hardest posts I have ever had to make. Parker is stable at the moment and being airlifted to Saskatoon hospital,” Rhonda Clarke Tobin wrote.
Meanwhile, LaBelle’s family had confirmed his death over the weekend, with his brother writing in an Instagram post that he was heartbroken.
On Monday, Isaac LaBelle posted an update on Facebook saying miracles do exist, and added the following comments to his Instagram post:
“I will be keeping this post as it is just a beautiful tribute to my brother even though he is still alive. It’s something me and my family will never forget. What we went through the last two days have been hell. I will be providing an update on his situation sometime in the coming days.”
“I also want to thank everyone for the beautiful comments on this post. I want to thank all of you individually but I think this is the best way. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Xavier is loved by so many people.”
Wilby said the families affected have been very understanding and professional, and accepting of the province’s apology.
“I don’t think anything you could ever say would be enough,” Wilby said, adding he is a father of three boys, two of whom have spent significant time traveling the provinces on buses.
“I can’t even imagine putting myself in those family shoes. To first get the notice that their loved ones have been in a collision of this nature — and then to find out that who they had thought was their loved one, wasn’t potentially actually their loved one – I can’t even fathom, I don’t think enough could ever be said. All I can do is offer our sincerest apologies.”
WATCH BELOW: New information led to proper identification of Humboldt Broncos victim
— With files from The Canadian Press