The crash occurred at the highway’s intersection with Highway 5 near the town of Carberry. RCMP from across the province were deployed to the scene along with the STARS air ambulance services from Winnipeg and Regina and other first responders.
Assistant Commissioner Rob Hill, commanding officer of the Manitoba RCMP, said the passenger bus was carrying 25 people, mostly from Dauphin, Man., and the surrounding communities.
“It’s my understanding that the majority were seniors,” he said, his voice shaking.
The Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg called a code orange in response to the Thursday afternoon crash to prepare for an influx of patients. The code orange was ended at roughly 3 p.m. CT.
A total of 10 people were sent to hospital, RCMP said.
Smoke and flames were seen by witnesses and reporters at the scene of the crash.
Carberry is roughly 170 kilometres west of Winnipeg and about three kilometres south of Highway 1 where it meets Highway 5.
Supt. Rob Lasson of Manitoba RCMP Major Crimes Services said the passenger bus was heading south from Dauphin toward Carberry on Highway 5 when it was struck by the semi trailer, which was travelling eastbound on Highway 1. The bus had already crossed the the westbound lanes of Highway 1 when it was hit.
He noted the crash had echoes of the fatal Humboldt Broncos crash in Saskatchewan in 2018, and some of the primary investigators in that crash — which led to criminal charges and a conviction against the semi truck driver responsible — are assisting in the investigation into Thursday’s crash.
“Even at the outset of an investigation such as this, we need to be alive to the fact that there could be wrongdoing,” Lasson said. “And if so, there could be a criminal element to this investigation.”
The drivers of both vehicles are alive and being treated in hospital, Lasson later confirmed.
He added it could be some time before families of the victims were notified as multiple investigators are working to ensure “accurate” information is provided as soon as possible.
“I don’t believe we’ve had a mass casualty traffic accident like this in Manitoba,” he said. “So this is very new for us.
“Death on this scale is never, never normalized for us.”
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Shared Health CEO Lanette Siragusa told reporters four area hospitals, all of them within southern Manitoba, received the surviving patients. Most were suffering from head or orthopedic injuries, she added, but did not give details on the patients’ conditions.
Premier Heather Stefanson offered her condolences to the victims in a brief statement.
“My heart breaks hearing the news of the tragic accident near Carberry,” she said. She added flags at the provincial legislature in Winnipeg will be lowered to half-staff.
Carberry Mayor Ray Muirhead said in a statement posted to the town’s Facebook page that the town council was in “shock” over the news.
“Our thoughts are in support of anyone that has been impacted by this tragic event.”
Federal politicians also responded to news of the crash.
“The news from Carberry, Manitoba is incredibly tragic,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “I’m sending my deepest condolences to those who lost loved ones today, and I’m keeping the injured in my thoughts.
“I cannot imagine the pain those affected are feeling – but Canadians are here for you.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre said in his own tweet that his heart was “broken” over the news and thanked first responders at the scene.
Family rooms were set up at both HSC Winnipeg and BRHC, and family members are asked to call the HSC switchboard (204-787-3661 or 1-877-499-8774) or BRHC (204-578-4080) if they’re seeking more information.
Josh Carson, a truck driver from Stony Mountain who drove by the scene earlier on Thursday afternoon, told 680 CJOB the situation looked very serious.
“There was a semi, pretty smashed up, and a shorter passenger bus in the ditch on fire,” he said.
“There were people all over the place, some looked like they were getting medical attention… it for sure looked like a pretty bad one.”
Nirmesh Vadera, who works at Robin’s Nest Motel and Cafe directly across the highway from the crash site, told Global News he was at work when the collision occurred.
“I ran outside, and I saw there was a huge fire and smoke,” he said.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham said in a press release Thursday that the news was “heartbreaking.” Expressing gratitude to the first responders across the province, he said many of them would carry the emotional weight of the tragedy for years to come.
“In times of sorrow, we are reminded of the strength of our communities, and the vital role each of us plays in offering support and compassion to our neighbours,” said Gillingham.
“From the City of Winnipeg to the City and RM of Dauphin, and all communities impacted by this event, I want you to know that we stand with you.”
The province says the eastbound lanes of Highway 1 at Highway 5 remain closed, but westbound lanes have since been reopened.