A Red Deer mother and daughter said they were just moments from boarding the bus near the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre Saturday afternoon that resulted in three deaths.
RCMP said they will not be releasing the names of the victims, but confirmed those killed in the rollover near Jasper, Alta., are a 24-year-old woman from Canoe Narrows, Sask; a 28-year-old woman from Edmonton; and a 58-year-old man from India.
Twenty-four others were injured, of those, 14 were reported to be critically injured.
RCMP updated those conditions Monday and said four people were still considered to be in critical but stable condition. Another patient was listed in serious but stable condition.
An RCMP collision reconstructionist team remained at the scene Monday, and RCMP said it could take several days to remove the vehicle for inspection.
The cause of the rollover has not yet been determined, however RCMP have confirmed that there is no evidence that a rock slide precipitated the incident.
Susan Andrew and her daughter Kadence said they drove from Canmore and had missed a different sightseeing turn which resulted in them arriving early at the Icefield Pursuit tour on Saturday.
“I just feel sorry for those families — the ones that lost their families but also those that were injured,” Susan Andrew said.
After checking in early, the pair was told there was room on the earlier 1 p.m. departure.
They boarded the snow bus and started the slow steep climb to the glacier.
“As we were doing the slow climb up,” Susan said, “this driver had joked about having no seatbelts.”
“There’s no seatbelts at all,” added Kadence. “There’s glass all the way around you — on the roof and on the sides.”
The pair said their tour guide played a game that encouraged passengers to stand up while driving along the steep terrain, to see who could resist falling.
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Pursuit president Dave McKenna said the company has been providing tours on the Ice Explorer vehicles for about 39 years and there has never been an incident where a passenger sustained a serious injury or was killed prior to Saturday.
McKenna said the Ice Explorers are off-road vehicles and seatbelts are not required. They aren’t allowed on highways and have a top speed of 40 kilometres an hour.
He said once the investigation is complete, Pursuit will implement any changes that might be part of recommendations for things like seatbelts.
At 1:30 p.m., the mother and daughter had reached the top of the icefield and spent the next 15 minutes taking pictures.
On they way back to the discovery centre, both Susan and Kadence waved to other passengers they passed on the snow bus they were originally scheduled to take.
“As Albertans, we are fairly friendly,” said Susan.
The pair said there were children and adults on that bus.
“We know because we saw them. We waved at them.”
Not long after the friendly encounter, both knew something had gone wrong.
“We had seen a vehicle, rushing past us,” Susan said. “Then we saw another vehicle rushing past us, so we knew something had happened.”
“It was very scary to know that that was our bus and we could have been in that bus.”
The vehicle had 27 people on it at the time – 26 passengers and one driver.
Back in the parking lot, Susan said the tour operator wouldn’t allow anyone back in the discovery centre. Susan and her daughter made their way around the building to get to their vehicle.
While in Jasper, they saw emergency vehicles and police rushing out to the scene.
“I feel bad for the families,” said Kadence, “and I’m deeply sorry for them.”
“It’s pretty tragic and a horrific accident,” said Susan. “We understand that they never had an accident like this before. But then it can happen.”
Susan wondered if the snow coaches should be outfitted with seatbelts and at the very least she said passengers should not have been encouraged to stand up during the ride.
“We almost feel guilty because we weren’t on that bus and somebody else probably took our place.”