Broncos bus crash stirs decades-old memories for Quebec paramedic

Retired Quebec paramedic Hal Newman was just starting his career when he was sent to the scene of an accident in Eastman. Forty-one people died in the crash.

Warning: This story contains graphic details

Hal Newman was 18 when he started as a paramedic in Montreal. (Submitted)

Hal Newman was a rookie paramedic, only 18, when he was dispatched with two others and a dive team to Eastman, Que., about 110 kilometres east of Montreal.  

It was early August 1978 and a bus crashed into Lac Argent after the brakes failed on a steep road.

The passengers included several people from Asbestos who had mental and physical disabilities and were on a community outing with volunteers to see a play. 

At first Newman had hope. Maybe the passengers could breathe inside an air bubble? But that hope quickly faded and the rescue operation turned into a recovery mission.

"It just became this very prolonged, drawn out horror show where they were recovering bodies and then they brought the bus up."

Only seven people survived, 41 died. The bus was eventually towed from the water with victims still inside.

Newman, who is now retired and lives in Stanstead in the Eastern Townships, said he still has vivid memories of seeing the victims. He stored those memories away in a corner of his mind, but they resurfaced last week when he heard the news of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.

"All the sudden there it was again."

'Hang in there'

Newman has been in touch with some of the first responders in Saskatchewan, including "a few late night chats," with one of his colleagues. 

His message is simple: "Just hang in there and, you know, if you need to talk you can reach me on social media and we're there."

Newman hopes that some of the money that has been raised for the players and families will be used to help the first responders with their own trauma recovery. 

The Tema Conter Memorial Trust — a national foundation that helps public safety workers cope with trauma — has also begun a crowdfunding campaign.

Vince Savoia, a former paramedic and founder of the trust, said the money raised will be used to pay for mental health services and other programs such as therapy and weekend retreats.

"A lot of first responders really aren't aware of the psychological effects that their jobs have on them," Savoia said.

Working through trauma​ with music, writing

Hal Newman said he was naive when he first started his job as a first responder.

Hal Newman received the Emergency Medical Services Exemplary Service Medal in 2014. (Submitted)
"I probably thought it was all about saving lives, and didn't realize at the time that there'd be significant amount of emotional trauma involved."

He used writing as a way to process his experiences on the job. He also turned to music for relief.

"I was like a vinyl junkie back then, and I used to buy a lot of albums."

He also developed a peer network over time with people who lived the same reality. 

"That helps diffuse some of the darkness that you carry." 

Toll on first responders

A national survey released in the fall of 2017, showed that first responders in Canada report significantly higher rates of mental disorders than the general population.  

Newman said suicide among paramedics is a deep concern. 

"I can't tell you how many funerals I've attended over the years." 

The sun rises across the Prairies as a cross made out of hockey sticks is seen at a makeshift memorial at the intersection of of a fatal bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., Tuesday, April, 10, 2018. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

With files from Rebecca Martel