A close-knit city in northern New Brunswick is in mourning after seven high school basketball players and a teacher died early Saturday when the van carrying them slammed into a transport truck on an icy road.

The Bathurst High School boys' basketball team, the Phantoms, was returning from a game in Moncton, about 220 kilometres to the south, when the van fish-tailed on a slippery highway and collided with a truck driving in the opposite lane, police said.


The entire passenger side of the van was ripped off during a collision with a tractor-trailer. ((CBC))

The accident happened around midnight local time on Highway 8 just 500 metres from the Bathurst exit, about five minutes away from their hometown.

Of the 12 in the vehicle, four survived, including the team's coach and his daughter.

The seven boys killed in the crash ranged from 15 to 18 years old. The coach's wife, a teacher at another school, also died.

Weather was a factor, police said

Police said the entire passenger side of the van was ripped off during the collision and most of the passengers ejected.

"There was nothing we could do," RCMP Sgt. Derek Strong told reporters. "The force of the impact was so great that the benches they were sitting on were also ejected from the vehicle, so this was a very, very major impact."

At the time of the crash, the road was slippery from snow, freezing rain and ice pellets.

"The road had snow and slush. We had a light snowstorm [Friday] that started in the afternoon," said RCMP Cpl. Daniel Melanson.

Three people were still in hospital late Saturday, while the fourth had been treated for injuries and released, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The driver of the transport truck was not injured, police said.

Grief counselling offered at school

The community of 13,000 was in shock after hearing news of the crash.


Students mourn the deaths of seven basketball players from Bathurst High School. ((CBC))

As early as 4 a.m., students, parents and community members began trickling in to the school where a grief counselling centre was opened for much of the day.

"There is such disbelief," said school district superintendent John McLaughlin. "A tragedy of this proportion — it's unspeakable."

He described the seven teammates as "your typical all-Canadian boys" who were positive, athletic and popular at the school of some 800 students.

Bathurst Mayor Stephen Brunet, who once taught at the school, noted that it is not only the small city that is trying to cope with the tragedy, but the whole region.

"Bathurst is a feeder school that has students coming in from around the region … so this affects a lot of young people," he said.

Families want a public funeral

The parents of Nathan Cleland, one of the boys killed, said they spoke to their son minutes before the crash when he called to tell them he was on his way home. 

'They played as a team, they rolled as a team and they went out as a team.' —Victim's father, John Cleland

In the background, they could hear the boys "whooping and hollering … and having a good time."

The parents said their 17-year-old son died alongside some of his closest friends.

"They played as a team, they rolled as a team and they went out as a team. So what better way possible than to be with your friends under circumstances like this," his father said.

Families of the victims have said they want a public funeral to be held at the city's sports arena so the entire community can gather to grieve.

An 'unthinkable' accident, PM says

Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent a letter of condolence to high school principal Coleen Ramsay.

"The sudden loss of eight people in this unthinkable accident shocked the nation, and all Canadians join you in mourning their passing," he wrote.

Harper said that as a father, he sympathizes with the parents of the teenage boys killed in the crash.

New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, speaking from Ottawa where he is attending a first ministers' meeting, also expressed his condolences to the victims' families.

"I just want to extend sympathies to the affected families," he said. "This is a tragic situation for the community of Bathurst and our province."

With files from the Canadian Press