‘Still so much pain’: Humboldt and the Broncos continue to heal 1 year after crash
The 911 call came in just after 5 p.m. to the fire hall in Nipawin, Sask., on April 6, 2018.
Fire Chief Brian Starkell has seen a lot in his 41-year career, but nothing could prepare him for the devastating scene that nearly every first responder in the area would encounter.
A semi-trailer truck had just collided with a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335. The Broncos were on their way to a playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
“It’s been rough,” Starkell said. “We all have our moments. Even until today, you’ll have a high moment for a while, then all of a sudden something will hit us and drag us back down.”
As firefighters, paramedics and police arrived at the crash site, what they saw was horrific. The bus lay on its side with the front end destroyed and the roof completely sheared off.
WATCH: Remembering Humboldt Broncos’ statistician Brody Hinz, the teen with a mind for numbers
Starkell, who is also a licensed funeral director, said he’s seen the “worst” in terms of human tragedy, but just driving down that stretch of highway can trigger painful memories from that night.
“You may be driving down the road, maybe pass a scene or attend another motor vehicle collision. You just don’t know,” he said.
Images from the crash showed hockey bags and bales of peat moss that the truck had been carrying amongst the wreckage and twisted metal.
Sixteen people — many of them young players — died in the crash, 14 at the scene and two later succumbing to injuries in hospital. Thirteen others were injured, including two who were paralyzed.
WATCH: First responders cope with heartache following Humboldt Broncos bus crash
Those killed were: Glen Doerksen, Dayna Brons, Darcy Haugan, Brody Hinz, Tyler Bieber, Mark Cross, Adam Herold, Stephen Wack, Jacob Leicht, Conner Lukan, Jaxon Joseph, Evan Thomas, Logan Hunter, Logan Schatz, Logan Boulet, and Parker Tobin.
Starkell said that first responders and their families were given support in the weeks and months after the tragedy, with some firefighters taking time off to cope with what happened.
Jessica Brost, owner and operator at Northeast EMS, said it took more than six months to recover from the shock of responding to the crash. Many paramedics, herself included, often have flashbacks to the night of the crash.
“Sometimes you might be in a room again with the same doctors and the nurses as you were with that night,” she said. “It triggers those same kind of feelings.”
WATCH: Jessica Brost thanks all Canadians for their support
With Saturday marking the one-year anniversary of the tragedy that shook the entire country, Brost said feelings of grief and sorrow often come bubbling back up to the surface.
“You’re thinking of all the families and parents that lost those kids. Friends and family and everyone involved,” she said. “It’s just bringing back a lot of memories.”
She also had a message for those across the country who sent their love and support.
“We had countless numbers of cards and donations and food and gifts and quilts,” Brost said holding back tears. “It was really nice to have that backing, so thank you.
One year after the crash
The Humboldt Broncos became a symbol of mourning for everyone across Canada — even around the world — who felt connected to the sport of hockey.
In the days that followed, households across the country and around the world propped hockey sticks outside their front doors as a symbol of support for victims. The hashtag #PutYourSticksOut and #SticksOutForHumboldt trended was embraced from NHL players to politicians and even the Canadian Forces in Iraq.
Donations poured into a record GoFundMe campaign for the victims that totalled more than $15 million. The money has since been allocated to the families of those killed receiving $525,000 each and those injured receiving $475,000.
For families who lost loved ones, the lead up to April 6 has left them wrestling with emotions of dread and grief, but also optimism.
WATCH: Father of Humboldt Broncos player talks about 1 year anniversary of crash
Scott Thomas, father of Evan Thomas, an 18-year-old forward who was killed in the crash, is hoping to celebrate the wonderful life his son had, even if it was brutally cut short.
“That’s what we’re trying to get to in the next little bit, is to stop focusing on how he died and focus on the life that he had,” he said. “Because he had a good one.”
Long road to recovery
With injuries ranging from paralysis to brain damage and mental health issues, they’ve developed their own support system to cope with the tragedy.
“I text my buddies. We just keep in touch and we’re there for each other,” Ryan Straschnitzki, who was paralyzed from the waist down, told the Canadian Press.
The 19-year-old from Airdrie, Alta., works on his therapy every day with a goal of playing for Canada’s sledge hockey team in the Olympics.
“It definitely comes out in times of frustration, but for the most part I like to keep it in me,” he said.
WATCH: Players begin road to recovery after crash
Morgan Gobeil was one of the final players to be released from hospital last month. He has a traumatic brain injury and sustained multiple skull fractures, facial fractures, broken ribs and lacerations to his liver and spleen.
For the better part of a year, Gobeil has endured dozens of medical procedures and hours upon hours of physical, occupational, and speech therapy.
“We are incredibly proud of the progress he has made — 333 days of extremely hard work,” the Gobeil family said in a statement. “The road is long and challenging, but we are confident Morgan’s work ethic and determination will be the cornerstone of his recovery!”
Brayden Camrud and Derek Patter, both 20, suffered injuries that included broken bones, significant lacerations, and head injuries, returned to play with the Broncos this past season. However, they both continue to attend physiotherapy due to the injuries.
Kaleb Dahlgren, a 21-year-old forward from Saskatoon, had his skull fractured, a puncture wound in his head, a brain injury and six broken vertebrae in his back and neck.
He is still in rehabilitation and is seeing a neurologist to determine if he will be able to play competitive hockey. He attends York University in Toronto full-time and has committed to play for the university’s Lions hockey team.
“I miss them so much, but I try to look at the positives and that’s what I’ve been doing so I try to think of them for motivation,” Dahlgren told Global News last September.
Driver sentenced to 8 years
WATCH ABOVE: Truck driver in Humboldt bus crash sentenced to 8 years
Thomas is now one of many Broncos parents fighting for safer trucking regulations. He’s glad the trial of the driver Jaskirat Singh Sidhu is over, which has closed a painful chapter in the ongoing tragedy.
“He blew through a stop sign and killed 16 people,” Thomas told Global News. “There are so many aspects to this tragedy, and the legal part of it is one you just want to go away.”
Sidhu was sentenced to eight years in prison in March for dangerous driving. In her decision, provincial judge Inez Cardinal said she found it “baffling and incomprehensible” that Sidhu could miss several markers before driving through a stop sign and colliding with the hockey team’s bus.
The 30-year-old from Calgary had already pleaded guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving causing death or bodily harm and spared families a lengthy, emotional trial.
During his sentencing hearing, mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and billet parents read or submitted heartbreaking victim impact statements.
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Russ Herold, who lost his son Adam, described sitting with his son’s urn and crying as he showed pictures of a recent family trip.
“Do you have any idea what it is like to hold your 6-foot-2, 200 pound athletic son on your lap, like I did when he was a baby? Only now, he is in a can,” Herold told Sidhu in court.
“We will never know, did we lose a great farmer, an NHL hockey player, a lawyer, a doctor, a future premier, maybe the prime minister of our great country? But I know I lost a piece of my soul, and my heart, my love, my son.”
WATCH: Families deliver victim impact statements at sentencing hearing
The statements alternated between anger and sorrow and detailed the excruciating pain of loss. Some even described forgiveness.
“I want to tell you that I forgive you,” said Christina Haugan, wife of head coach Darcy Haugan, 42, of Humboldt, Sask. “There are days while the unjustness and sadness are definitely still there, but I have been forgiven for things when I didn’t deserve it so I will do the same.”
Marilyn Hay, mother of Tyler Bieber, 29, a play-by-play announcer who was killed, recalled the last message she sent her son.
“My last message from Tyler was at 3 p.m. April 6 to say he was on the bus,” Hay said. “You see, Tyler would often drive on his own and I would always say why can’t you go on the bus? To me, it was the safest.”
“Part of me felt guilty then. The last, ‘I love you, mom. Have a great day’ came three days earlier on my birthday, April 3. My birthday will never be the same.”
WATCH: Trucking business opens at same Calgary address as company involved in Humboldt crash
Singh of Adesh Deol Trucking admitted he did not follow provincial and federal safety rules in the months leading up to the collision.
While Adesh Deol had its licensed suspended another trucking company opened up shortly after the crash at Singh’s home address. The Calgary-based trucking company is no longer in business.
For many families most affected, the last year has not just been a grieving process, but a fight for change in many areas, including the trucking industry, organ donation, and many other areas.
Fighting for change
Former Edmonton Oiler Chris Joseph, who lost his son Jaxon, has fought to mandate national standards for truck drivers.
“It was a bad driver working for a bad company. There was a lot of things that went wrong,” Joseph said. “There are many people to blame and clearly the trucking industry has had a spotlight shone on it.”
The crash quickly sparked debate about truck driver training. At the time, drivers could get behind the wheel of powerful semi-trucks with little training in most provinces. In some cases, all that was required was an in-class driver’s exam.
A year ago, Ontario was the sole province to have mandatory entry-level truck driver training (MELT) program in place. Now those programs have been rolled out in Alberta and Saskatchewan, while Manitoba’s MELT program comes into effect on Sept. 1. MELT programs will be required nationwide by the beginning of 2020.
Thomas has also been fighting for more stringent standards in the trucking industry.
“The governments are baby stepping their way through this,” he said. “We are trying to advocate for safer roads.”
WATCH: Coroner would like to see seatbelts on all buses in wake of Humboldt crash
Joseph and Thomas have helped push a petition to the House of Commons with suggestions for Canada-wide mandatory graduated entry-level training legislation for Class 1 drivers. The petition also calls for a graduated licensing system that would take into account both the size and complexity of vehicles as well as weather and road conditions.
Joseph said the progress towards change has been slow but he is encouraged by the direction some provinces are heading. He wonders why others haven’t have made the change sooner.
“I applaud the Saskatchewan and Alberta [governments] for what they’ve done and for what Ontario has already had in place,” he said. “But we seriously wonder why hasn’t British Columbia and Manitoba and the rest of the provinces jumped onboard? We don’t know what they’re waiting for.”
Meanwhile, Bernadine and Toby Boulet, who lost their 21-year-old son, have been working to promote organ donation awareness by launching Green Shirt Day, which will have its debut on April 7.
Logan Boulet, who signed an organ donation card on his 21st birthday, had his heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and corneas donated, which saved or improved the lives of six people across Canada.
“All we could think was, ‘can we donate organs and make someone’s life better?’” Bernadine told Global News “We love to talk about him and share his story and to share how it’s affected us.
“He comes with us and he’s with us, and that’s what’s important.”
How hockey helped heal Humboldt
In the small town of Humboldt — home to just under 6,000 people — Mayor Rob Muench said the community has gone through a lengthy grieving process, but that hockey and Elgar Petersen Arena, where the Broncos play, have been part of the healing process.
“People were in a state of shock,” said Muench, who is also a Broncos season ticket holder. “In the fall, when the hockey team got back on the ice. That was a really good thing for the community.
WATCH: Former Broncos president speaks about impact the crash had on Humboldt
Indeed, hockey never stopped in the town. The Broncos finished sixth in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and earned a quarter-final berth in this year’s playoffs. Humboldt was eliminated by the Estevan Bruins in overtime during a thrilling Game 7 on March 26.
“The team played inspired hockey this year,” Muench said. The town’s museum and art gallery are currently hosting an exhibit of jerseys, handwritten notes, flags and other items sent to Humboldt following the crash. A permanent memorial is also in the works, according to the mayor.
WATCH: Team president fights back tears reading out names of victims in tragic crash
Muench also thanked all of Canada for the continuing support over the last 12 months.
“It’s been a trying year for the community,” he said. “But I think we’ve gotten to the point where things are back to normal.”
Kevin Garinger, former Broncos president, became a public face for the community after the crash, often speaking with the media about the accident and helping to share the memories of the lives lost.
It was Garinger who, during an emotional memorial last April, read off the names of those killed or injured in the crash.
“They will forever be Humboldt Broncos,” said Garinger holding back tears as he spoke at Elgar Petersen arena to a crowd that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and NHL alumni.
Garinger said the last year has been both the “longest and shortest” of his life.
“There’s still so much pain,” he said.
He said the crash has had a profound impact on the young people of Humboldt as Broncos players, under head coach Darcy Haugan, volunteered in schools.
“Darcy led these kids and had them in our schools, reading with our kids, and doing things in the community,” Garinger said. “Our young people aspired to be like these young guys.”
Back at the intersection of highways 35 and 335, temporary LED signs now tell drivers to slow down to 60 km/hr, warning of pedestrians ahead.
At the site, crosses bear the names of each person killed in the crash. Mementos sent from around the word lay on the ground. Some have been there since last April. Others, like the fresh-cut flowers, are new. A single green cross with the phrase “HUMBOLDTSTRONG” towers above it all. The sound of a pinwheel in the wind echoes across the site.
In a patch of mud, someone has laid down a black rubber mat for visitors walk on. A Calgary man visiting Saskatchewan on a business trip stopped to pay his respects.
“It’s one of those things that makes you want to cry,” he said.
For Garinger, he believes there might never be any closure. He, along with everyone in Humboldt, will continue to honour the memories of Doerksen, Hinz, Bieber, Brons, Cross, Haugan, Herold, Wack, Leicht, Lukan, Joseph, Thomas, Hunter, Schatz, Boulet, and Tobin.
“I’ll never forget and I’ll continue to honour them,” he said. “It’s a hard week, obviously. As every day approaches you are thinking back to the last time that you saw the athletes.
“We will never forget the 29 who were aboard the bus, and are grateful to have the 13 with us.”
WATCH: Life in Humboldt, one year after tragedy struck
— With additional reporting from David Lao and the Canadian Press
© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.