At least eight people involved in a crash between a school bus and a picker truck near Smoky Lake, Alta. on Monday morning have been taken to hospital in Edmonton for further treatment. Five of those people were in critical condition Monday afternoon, according to Alberta Health Services.
The crash happened at around 8:30 a.m. at the intersection of Highway 28 and Range Road 180. RCMP said the bus was heading north on Range Road 180 and the picker truck was heading west on Highway 28 when the collision occurred.
A spokesperson from the Aspen View Public School Division said the bus was taking students to H.A. Kostash School, a K-12 school located in Smoky Lake. There were 14 students and one driver on the bus at the time, Ross Hunter said.
The driver of the picker truck was taken to hospital with minor injuries, according to police. A passenger in the picker truck was not injured.
In total, AHS said 16 patients were assessed by EMS or in hospital.
A teenage girl was flown by STARS Air Ambulance from the scene to the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton, according to STARS. The youth was in serious, life-threatening condition, RCMP said.
One adult patient was taken to the Redwater Health Centre for further treatment.
The rest of the students and the bus driver were taken by a second bus to the Smoky Lake Healthcare Centre for further assessment, Hunter said.
After assessment at the Smoky Lake Healthcare Centre, four more children were taken to hospital in Edmonton in critical condition. STARS said a physician was sent to Smoky Lake hospital to help with triage, and flew an adolescent male patient back to the Stollery in critical condition.
STARS also transported another boy from the Smoky Lake hospital to the Stollery in critical condition, spokesperson Fatima Khawaja told Global News just after 2 p.m. Monday.
Two other pediatric patients were transported by ground ambulance from Smoky Lake to Edmonton in critical condition, AHS said Monday afternoon.
Another student and an adult were taken by ground ambulance to Edmonton in serious, but stable condition, AHS said. One other patient was transported by ground ambulance to hospital in Edmonton in stable condition, according to AHS.
Scott Franchuk, the regional fire chief for Smoky Lake County, said when firefighters got to the scene, bystanders were already providing first aid to the victims.
Franchuk said some teammates on his hockey team have kids who were on the bus at the time of the crash.
“We’re just talking through text and hopefully everybody’s doing well and they’re on the road to recovery,” he said.
According to Franchuk, the bus had “some significant damage” where two of the injured children were.
“We ended up using the… jaws of life as well as a couple of saws to cut some of the seats and the roof away,” he said. “Due to their injuries, we had to take them out on a spine board.”
He said he believed roads in the area were “in fairly good condition” at the time of the crash but that it was up to investigators to determine that.
Franchuk said firefighters from Vilna and Waskatenau also responded to the crash.
Cpl. Ron Bumbry, a spokesperson for RCMP Alberta, said early indications he had received were also that road conditions were “clear” at the time of the crash. He said the collision happened at a controlled intersection.
According to Bumbry, a preliminary investigation suggests the school bus was driving, stopped at a stop sign and then tried to cross when the collision occurred.
“Our thoughts are with everybody that was involved in this collision today,” he said.
Following the crash, AHS said a Code Orange – a response code referring to a mass casualty emergency – was activated at the George McDougall-Smoky Lake Healthcare Centre.
Specifically, the code means, “all site staff and departments, including support staff and three physicians on site, were immediately called to respond, including community health services, seniors health/continuing care, protective services, allied health and environmental services,” AHS said.
AHS said mental health support was being made available for staff.
A Code Orange was also activated at the Stollery.
Smoky Lake resident Dan Jarema’s six-year-old granddaughter was on the bus and has since been taken to hospital in Edmonton for further treatment. He said she had just boarded the bus when the crash happened.
“Her mother came and picked her up and brought her home but then she started throwing up so they had a concern about concussions,” Jarema said. “So they took her to Smoky Lake hospital and now they are on the way to the Stollery to check her out.”
Jarema said he was at his mother’s house when the crash happened. He said he could see the crash site but knew he wouldn’t be able to access it with the emergency vehicles blocking off the roadways.
The families of the students on the bus were notified, Hunter said shortly before noon, and supports for students and staff were in place at the school.
“We have our student services team at the school providing support, working with our school administration,” said Neil O’Shea, superintendent of Aspen View Public School Division. “They’re closely monitoring the needs of the school and will continue over the next — however long it takes to get things to a place that we’re comfortable with.”
He said the school division uses a contractor to take care of student transportation.
Hank Holowaychuk, the mayor of Smoky Lake, said that Monday had been “a very difficult day for the community and the school” but that he also has confidence that the crash victims are getting “the best of care” from first responders.
“I’m sure that in due course they’ll do their investigation and hopefully determine what caused this very unfortunate and tragic incident,” he said. “We live in rural areas and traffic has to cross those highways.
“We just hope and pray that everybody uses that extra diligence to make sure they take a little patience and try to arrive home alive.”
Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange took to social media to say she is “deeply saddened to learn of this accident.
“I am closely monitoring the situation and will provide the school board and the affected families with whatever support I can. My heart is with these students, and I want to thank our first responders for their rapid response,” she said on Twitter.
At around 11 a.m., there were at least seven RCMP vehicles on scene, as well as a couple of ambulances.
Traffic in the area was rerouted around the collision site Monday morning. The highway was open again to traffic by 1:30 p.m.
The intersection is located about five kilometres west of the town of Smoky Lake, which is about 115 kilometres northeast of Edmonton.
–With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich