Much was wrong with UVic bus trip, says crash survivor; petition calls for road fix

UVic student Sarah Hunter is haunted by the bus crash she crawled out of on Friday night, but of all the sights and sounds, the most painful came from the two people in front of her, who talked so eagerly about destinations that they’ll now never see.

Emma Machado, 18, of Winnipeg, and John Geerdes, 18, from Iowa City, Iowa, talked “pretty loudly and excitedly” about university life and their trip to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre that night, said Hunter, 19. But the two first-year University of Victoria students never made it to the teaching facility on an optional field trip.

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At about 9:30 p.m. on Friday a bus carrying 45 University of Victoria students and two teaching assistants slid off the gravel road to Bamfield and went down an embankment.

Machado and Geerdes, sitting just about a metre in front of Hunter, were pronounced dead at the scene.

It’s in their memory that Hunter started a petition to pressure the B.C. government, specifically Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, to upgrade the Bamfield Main gravel logging road that has morphed into a highway used by residents, tourists, commercial vehicles and buses transporting students.

“This is all for them,” said Hunter. “To have their lives taken from them before they got to start, to die in the pursuit of something they were so passionate for, to not even get there, it’s completely unfair. I want to do this so they didn’t die in vain, so no other students die in vain, that their lives can save others.”

The petition had about 6,500 signatures on Wednesday night.

There was a lot wrong that night in Hunter’s mind — including the departure time, the mode of transportation and the weather conditions. Mostly, however, it was the narrow gravel road itself with no barriers, poor sightlines, little if any signage, and no lighting. The darkness, rain and fog exacerbated an already risky situation, she said.

Students were instructed the bus would depart on time, at 3 p.m., so that it would reach Bamfield before dark, Hunter said.

Instead, the bus left at about 3:20 p.m. It was delayed again, to pick up a late student, departing about 4:45 p.m. in rush-hour traffic, said Hunter.

At 7:10 p.m., the bus pulled into McDonald’s in Port Alberni for dinner. The bus headed down a bumpy Bamfield Main after about 7:40 p.m., she said.

UVic did not provide the Times Colonist answers to questions about the bus itinerary, including scheduled departure and arrival times.

Gayle Gorrill, UVic vice-president of finance and operations, said the university has begun a review of the circumstances around the bus crash, noting it’s important to learn from such tragedies.

UVic expects an RCMP investigation will also provide “valuable information.”

Hunter said as the bus rumbled along the gravel road, she glanced down the side of a ravine as it rained. She calmed her fear with the thought she was safe on a university-organized trip. She didn’t wear her seatbelt — only two passengers did — and wasn’t told to do so by the driver, she said.

Hunter doesn’t know why Machado and Geerdes, in seats in front of her, both died when she suffered only cuts.

Just before the crash, the bus was travelling at a slow speed on a bend, Hunter said.

She believes the bus was pulling over to the right of the gravel road for an oncoming vehicle when she felt a bumping, as if the bus tires hit the shoulder.

“You could just feel the bus teetering back and forth and the tires sliding in the mud and slipping slowly until the point of no return and we just slammed down to the ground,” Hunter said. “There was the sound of screaming, and metal on ground, and crushing sounds, and the glass breaking.”

The window she had earlier been resting her head on popped out, shattered, and was soon under the bus as it slid down the embankment.

“Roots and dust and dirt were coming through the window so rapidly. … I was in disbelief and my brain shut off and went into automatic primal mode.”

She was aware of the two seatbelted passengers “hanging from the ceiling,” but not of the condition of the two students in front of her.

“I was in total shock. I remember people checking people’s pulses. I remember people screaming ‘don’t move’ because we didn’t know if we’d roll again. We’d be in so much more trouble if we did, so we are just trying to stay calm.”

The bus came to be cradled by three birch trees — “three giant birch trees that we all owe our lives to because there would have been so many more fatalities if we kept rolling even one more time, two more times down the entire hill into the river,” Hunter said.

“We tried, one at a time, to make our way down the bus and out the windshield.”

The vehicle in the oncoming lane for which the bus moved was a Jeep equipped with a steel tow cable, she said. “He throws it down the hill and everyone in good shape helps everybody else up. It’s very muddy. It’s a slippery embankment. It’s super surreal. It was like crawling out of a muddy grave.”

Headlights from the Jeep lit the top of the hill, Hunter said.

“It was all illuminated and looking back at the bus all you could see was the underbelly and how far we had fallen.”

Hunter said she’s trying to turn that terrifying memory into something positive.

“It’s completely unacceptable. It shouldn’t have happened in the first place and it shouldn’t happen again.

“The road itself I would deem unfit for mass transportation. It’s fine for logging, but it’s not fine to be a primary road between Bamfield and Port Alberni.”

With no cellphone reception, the students were reliant on passing cars travelling into a serviced area to call for more help, Hunter said.

“If that road is going to be used as frequently as it is, then it needs to change.”

If it doesn’t change, Hunter said, students going to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre should not be taken on large coach buses but rather in smaller, more manoeuvrable vehicles, or transported via ferry from Port Alberni to the centre.

“I don’t think any bus should be travelling at that time of night on that road,” said Hunter.

UVic has said the Bamfield centre provides students “incredible opportunities to learn more about the West Coast.”

The university has another trip planned in October.

Gorrill said “the outcomes of our review will inform decisions around transportation for that field trip as well as other future trips.”

Hunter wants her petition to bring awareness about the crash and the road conditions and to attract the attention of politicians, particularly Trevena: “To actually put a plan of action in place to improve the road conditions between Bamfield and Port Alberni and just overall change the way students are transported between Port Alberni and the Bamfield marine centre,” Hunter said.

“I think of [Machado and Geerdes’] parents sending them off to university, wishing them well, and they only got two weeks.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

> The petition is online at change.org — search for Sarah Hunter Bamfield.

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