As It Happens

B.C. man says he calls 911 about a crash on Coquihalla Highway 'almost every year'

CBC Radio

February 26, 2018

Emergency crews respond to a crash that left 29 injured on Coquihalla Highway in B.C. (Shane MacKichan)

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On Sunday night, Graham Zillwood phoned in a major crash near Hope, B.C., and he says it's something he's been doing every winter for the past 14 years.  6:34

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A multi-vehicle crash on the Coquihalla Highway north of Hope, B.C., left more than two dozen people in hospital on Sunday night — and it's a sight Graham Zillwood said he's witnessed far too many times. 

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Twenty-nine patients were taken to hospital with injuries ranging from stable to critical after a crash involving at least two buses, two semi-trailers and two other vehicles on the Coquihalla Highway. 

The RCMP said winter conditions played a major role in the chain-reaction crash. 

Zillwood lives fewer than 100 metres from the crash site, and says over the last 14 years, he has called in a major collision almost every year. 

He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about what he saw from his home, and why he thinks this stretch of highway is so dangerous. Here is part of their conversation. 

Last night, when did you know that something was going very badly on that highway?

I heard a bang. It sounded like crunching metal and it sounded like a tree snapping, and I've heard those sounds before across the river, so I knew roughly what to expect.

I grabbed my phone and I ran to my front windows, dialling 911 as I got there.

Fire crews and search and rescue teams pulled several trapped people from vehicles after the crash. (Shane MacKichan)

About 200 feet to the south of the highway ... was a vehicle down the embankment toward the river. Not in the water, but right down. And then as I was looking at that, I peripherally looked to my left hand and right across from me I could see a semi barrelling down ... and he hit one of the cars that was stopped on the highway.

That car went down the embankment and then the semi went toward the embankment and rolled down onto his side, onto that car.

Was it a bit slippery?

Yes.

Unfortunately, I've had to call in this type of accident before. I've been here 14 years and I've called it in many, many years.

A kilometre south of my house going up the highway is quite a steep hill that winds up as you're going into Hope.  And when the roads get slippery, it only takes one or two vehicles to get stuck on that hill and then the traffic starts to back up.

A bus came to rest on its side in a ditch off the Coquihalla Highway after being involved in a multi-vehicle crash near Hope, B.C. (Shane MacKichan)

They don't have enough time to react or slow down because the vehicles are stopped right in front of them and they don't know. And so they either go to the right, head to the river or normally they go to the left in between the highways to try and avoid hitting vehicles. It's just terrible.

So as I'm talking to 911, I'm saying, "Here comes another semi."

There was a total of three semis that came while I'm on 911 watching it and I'm calling play-by-play. It's just horrible. I can see it and I can't do anything, except call 911.

You say you've been there for 14 years. How many times have you called in accidents?      

It seems like almost every year. 

Every winter except for maybe two or three out of 14. But then I also called in two during the summer, and that's not from slippery conditions. 

If they're having these accidents even when it's not slippery, it sounds like a very dangerous pass.

Yeah, and it shouldn't be. It's a very level spot. It's pretty well straight. It doesn't make sense. This time of year it does, because of that hill. People can't get up that hill and that backs it up. That is our problem in the winter time here. I am absolutely sure that's what causes the accidents here.

And I have talked to the ministry of highways about it before over the years to see what can be done to get some kind of warning to the exit before when this happens so people know to stop and to take a detour through that exit. And not stay on the highway and freeze to death all night. Sometimes that highways closed for two, three days in bad weather.

Responders worked for hours to free people trapped in vehicles after the crash. (Shane MacKichan)

And what kind of response do you get from the government when you give those suggestions?

They didn't really know what to do about it. They said there's not much we can do.

With files from CBC BC. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

B.C. Emergency Health Services says it sent 22 air and ground ambulances to the crash scene. (Shane MacKichan)