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‘On my mind every day’: Nurse first to arrive at Humboldt crash describes life-altering scene

ABOVE: Former Humboldt Broncos player Tyler Smith opens up about emotional injuries suffered in bus crash (Sept. 18)

WARNING: This story contains graphic details of the bus crash, including descriptions of injuries. 

Vivian York recalls that the debris was still flying when she drove up to an intersection where the Humboldt Broncos hockey bus and a semi-truck carrying peat moss had just collided.

The nurse was coming home from a haircut and was the first person at the chaotic scene on a highway north of Tisdale, Sask., on April 6, 2018. Sixteen people died and 13 others were injured.

READ MORE: Former Humboldt Broncos player paralyzed in bus crash makes Adidas ad, hall of fame nominee list

She told The Canadian Press in a recent interview that she struggled after the accident and wondered if there was anything more she could have done. She regrets not having more time with each person she tried to help on that late afternoon.

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“I didn’t have time to ask their names. When I look back and think, ‘This kid was dead or this kid had a head injury,’ then when I saw … their faces in the paper I thought, ‘Which one were you?'”

York, who lives just a few kilometres from the crash site, said she dreams about the accident regularly.

“It’s on my mind every day. Every time I drive by there. I literally get … goosebumps and the hair on my arms stands up – even now talking about it.”

York, 59, said she intends to retire from nursing soon and move home to Alberta. Although she didn’t see a counsellor after her experience, she hopes to become one herself.

“It’s been life-altering for me and I’m glad I was there to do what I could. It always brings me to tears. Just the magnitude of it all.”

READ MORE: Former Humboldt Bronco opens up about mental health: ‘It’s OK to not be OK’

Former Humboldt Broncos player Tyler Smith opens up about emotional injuries suffered in bus crash
Former Humboldt Broncos player Tyler Smith opens up about emotional injuries suffered in bus crash

The first thing she can remember is seeing “the tires of the bus and a bunch of peat moss, so I thought it was just a truck rolled over. But as I went by I saw a person crawling on the ground.”

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Pulling himself from the wreckage was player Nick Shumlanski, the only one not to be injured. She got him a blanket.

“I didn’t realize how bad it was until I turned around. All I could see were multitudes of bodies and blond hair everywhere. Lots and lots and lots of bodies. That’s when I started going from person to person to see what I could do,” York said.

“There was only about 12 or 13 in view that I had anything to do with. The rest were dead underneath the debris. The front end of the bus was gone, but all the seats were intact. There was one guy hanging out of the seat who was dead.”

READ MORE: ‘Truly gratifying’: First responders honoured for work in Humboldt crash

Teammates had dyed their hair blond for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoffs.

“They all looked alike. They were all of an athletic build and … most of them didn’t have any shirts on because they were changing, apparently, and it was cold.

“I just concentrated on opening airways and warming people up and trying to get more help.”

York said several people, including some volunteer firefighters arrived, but it was 45 minutes before there were any ambulances.

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It was frustrating, she said, because as a health-care worker she knew what the victims needed but had nothing to work with.

One of the last people she tended to was Ryan Straschnitzki, a teen from Airdrie, Alta., who would be left paralyzed from the chest down.

“I could see Ryan sitting there in shock all by himself, so I went over to him. He just kept wanting me to lay him down because he was in so much pain, but I wanted to keep him upright.”

READ MORE: Ryan Straschnitzki, hurt in Broncos crash, returns to Humboldt

Ryan Straschnitzki, hurt in Broncos crash, returns to Humboldt
Ryan Straschnitzki, hurt in Broncos crash, returns to Humboldt

York said it appeared Straschnitzki, propped up against the truck’s undercarriage, had been thrown a long distance.

“He was thrown all the way over to where the truck was lying. All the debris and the bodies were in between.”

Straschnitzki kept drifting in and out of consciousness, she said.

“He knew he was paralyzed and his hockey career was over. He said to me, ‘Are my friends all dead?'”

She visited him later in a Saskatoon hospital.

“He was still so swollen and he couldn’t move or anything, but he had one working arm and put it around me and gave me a hug. It just ripped my heart out.”

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York ended up giving Straschnitzki a necklace with a half moon that she always wore. It now sits on his bedside table at home. And the pair keep in touch through monthly texts.

“Something just made me tell him to take it as a good-luck charm,” York said.

“I don’t know if it was a good-luck charm for me to be on scene that day wearing that necklace.”