Marina Gaiga says it’s been years since she drove the remote logging road on Vancouver Island where two university students died in a bus crash Friday night.
The Alberni Island Shuttle owner says she stopped taking students to and from the Bamfield Marine Science Centre for one reason: she felt unsafe every time she drove the route.
“It’s a whole different kind of driving there,” she said. “If you go too fast, if you hit a rough patch or a turn the wrong way, you’re just floating on that gravel. It’s nasty.”
WATCH (Sept. 14, 2019): Tragic rollover crash near Bamfield
Gaiga still gets calls from groups looking to visit the popular research facility, but now she tells them to catch the Francis Barkley ferry from Port Alberni.
“I just don’t want to risk that drive,” she said. “I’ve had lots of close calls.”
The charter bus carrying 45 University of Victoria students and two teaching assistants was heading to Bamfield when it went down an embankment and rolled over around 9:30 p.m. Seventeen others were taken to hospital, including the driver.
The road the group was using is the only one linking Bamfield to other communities, including Port Alberni, and is used regularly by members of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation.
In a statement, Chief Coun. Robert Dennis said the 85-kilometre road has become notorious for fatal crashes, and he is hopeful this latest incident inspires all levels of government to act.
“We have known for a long time of the safety issues related to this road,” he said.
“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. Safety on this road is one of our primary concerns as a Nation. Too many lives have already been lost.”
WATCH (Sept. 14, 2019): Road safety questioned after fatal bus crash near Bamfield
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions says the city has joined the Huu-ay-aht’s calls for improvements, saying she plans to bring up the issue again with the province.
“Over the last few months the city has lent our voice to that issue and we’re certainly going to continue,” she said.
“At the best of times, that road is windy, narrow, potholes everywhere, challenging to navigate. This is the worst possible outcome we want to hear for conditions of that road.”
Minions said the fact the road once frequented by loggers is now a main route for tourists and locals alike means more care is needed.
“The condition is unacceptable for people to have to be travelling on as the main road to get to and from their community,” she said.
A deadly history
While the route earned notoriety nine years ago when a group of Edmonton high school students got stranded on their way to the marine science centre, it also has a deadly history.
According to local news reports dating back to 1994, at least three people have been killed in crashes on the road, either from losing control or crashing head-on with other vehicles.
In August 2009, a fourth person was walking on the road when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver who has yet to come forward.
One fatal crash in September 2007 prompted Scott Fraser, the MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, to call on the then-Liberal government to turn the road into a provincial highway, putting it under the authority of the Ministry of Transportation.
Fraser revisited the issue in the legislature in February 2008 after a BC Forest Safety Ombudsman’s report recommended “a new public highway designation for resource roads serving as primary or secondary access to communities in B.C.” The ombudsman repeated the call in the following year’s report.
A request for comment from Fraser, who now serves as the minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, was denied by the ministry.
The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development says the road is still operated and maintained privately by Western Forest Products, but would not comment further.
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In a statement, the company said the section of road where the bus crashed was last graded on Sept. 12, as part of regular maintenance on the entire route.
“Western has supported local communities’ requests to upgrade the road and has written letters of support to provincial ministers on the matter,” a spokesperson said, while extending sympathies to the families of the victims.
The Ministry of Transportation did not respond to requests for comment Saturday or Sunday.
Cell service a priority
Gaiga with Alberni Island Shuttle says while road maintenance is crucial for the route, cell service in the area should also be a priority.
“You just never know when you’re going to run into trouble out there, so being able to call for help is crucial,” she said. “That would solve so many problems.”
RCMP said they were alerted to Friday’s bus crash by a satellite phone call.
In the case of the Alberta high school students, they didn’t get help until the bus driver rode his bike 40 kilometres down the road until he found a logging contractor — hours after the bus ran into problems.
Gaiga says most times, drivers are forced to rely on other travellers to lend a hand, an opportunity that fades as soon as the sun sets and less people are on the road.
Provincial and federal efforts to improve cell service in B.C. has focused mainly on northern Interior communities, however.
While regular shuttle service contracted by the Bamfield Marine Science Centre operates during the day, the itinerary for the two-day field trip the University of Victoria students were on recommends groups arrive at 10 p.m., in order to catch low tide the next morning.
A spokesperson for the University of Victoria says the fall trip to the centre has been running for at least 18 years, and did not mention any other instance of a group crashing or running into problems on the way there or back.
The research facility did not respond to requests for comment over the weekend.
The cause of the crash is still unknown. The bus company, Wilson Transportation, says the driver was experienced and the bus itself recently passed safety inspections.
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RCMP and Transport Canada, who are overseeing the investigation, did not have updates Sunday.
Gaiga says she’s sad it’s taken another tragedy for the conversation around safety on the road to start up again, but is hopeful a solution can be found.
“When it’s daylight, you don’t know anyone is coming until you see the clouds of dust up ahead,” she said. “When it’s nighttime, it’s the (head)lights from the other cars. That’s not enough.”
—With files from Kristen Robinson, Nadia Stewart and Sarah MacDonald