The remote Vancouver Island road that was the site of a fatal bus crash last weekend has been a safety concern for decades, according to local leaders.
Huu-ay-aht First Nations chief councillor Robert Dennis Sr. was at the scene on Friday night after a bus carrying 48 people, many of them students from the University of Victoria, rolled down an embankment on its way to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
Huu-ay-aht is an Indigenous community that primarily resides around the village of Anacla, near Bamfield. The main access is via Bamfield Road — an approximately 85-kilometre stretch of mostly gravel with no cell service. It’s heavily used by logging trucks, but also has several regular commuters and tourists.
Dennis and his wife were returning home to Bamfield when they were flagged down by another driver and told there’d been a crash a couple of kilometres ahead.
|Chief councillor Robert Dennis Sr.|
“When we got there, we saw lots of lights flashing,” said Dennis. It was the cell phones of dozens of students, who had already made it to the roadside and were helping others up the embankment with a rope. He and his wife went to help.
“One of the younger girls was crying, said she wanted to get home. You could tell they were feeling the effects of the crash. All in all, it was a scary thing to come up to.”
Emergency vehicles arrived more than an hour later. One person had to be extricated from the bus. Two others, identified on Monday as an 18-year-old woman from Manitoba and an 18-year-old man from the U.S., were found dead.
Dennis travels the road between Port Alberni and Bamfield around three to four times a week. It’s maintained based on logging operations, he said, but does not take commuters into account. It had been graded only a couple of days ago, but was already starting to develop large potholes from heavy rain earlier in the week, he said.
“I would say 90 per cent of the road is in decent-to-poor condition,” he said. “It’s not maintained with public safety in mind, in my view.”
He said he spoke to the bus driver, who was “very experienced” driving that road. The cause of the crash is still unknown.
Huu-ay-aht First Nations has been trying to work with all levels of governments for years to make the road safer. He said they’re in talks with the province, but this crash highlights the need for immediate action.
“I want to offer my condolences to the families that lost loved ones,” he said. “Who on earth wants to send their kids to school and have this happen?”
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said the city has reached out to the province as well for safety improvements.
“We all know that Huu-ay-aht has really been leading the charge for improvements to the Bamfield Road,” she said on Saturday.
“It will continue to be a push. There’s a lot of work to be done, and situations like last night really highlight that.”
Claire Trevena, the minister of transportation and infrastructure, said she has heard concerns raised about the road by the Huu-ay-aht First Nation as well as the local member of the legislature, Scott Fraser.
“Ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine if safety improvements could be made,” Trevena said in an email statement.
“The situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations.”