British Columbia

UVic must improve emergency response protocol after fatal bus crash: review

An initial report into a deadly bus crash that killed two University of Victoria students last fall has made more than 40 recommendations to the school, saying dozens of changes must be made to make future field trips safer and to better support families in case of disaster.

Lack of emergency contacts list led to chaos for families after 2019 crash on road to Bamfield, report finds

A tow-truck crew removes the bus from an embankment next to a logging road near Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 14, 2019. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

An initial report into a deadly bus crash that killed two University of Victoria students last fall has made more than 40 recommendations to the school, saying dozens of changes must be made to make future field trips safer and to better support families in case of disaster.

The review found the school needs to improve its protocols for hazard assessments, trip-planning, student support and emergency response after falling short in those areas before and after the fatal crash outside Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2019.

The report did not assign blame for the crash, but said the univeristy's shortcomings should be acted upon to prevent similar disasters from happening on future field trips.

"A series of what seem like non-related and low-influence events can combine to form a much larger and catastrophic event," the report reads. A change in any one of ... the influencers may have changed the likelihood [of the crash], although we will never know for sure."

John Geerdes from Iowa and Emma Machado of Winnipeg, both 18, were killed when a charter bus with 43 other students on board left a gravel road and went down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2019. (Submitted by Jose Fajardo/Submitted by Sam Machado)

Incomplete emergency contact list

Emma Machado of Winnipeg and John Geerdes from Iowa, who were both 18 years old, were killed when a charter bus with 43 other students on board left a gravel road and went down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield just before 8 p.m. PT on the night of the crash.

The students had been on their way to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre for an annual field trip.

The review outlines, in detail, how a lack of emergency response protocol for an off-campus incident and an incomplete emergency contacts list left parents scrambling to track down their children after the crash.

At the time, it was only optional for students to provide emergency contact information before going on a field trip. That meant staff spent hours putting a complete list together and trying to reach students' families.

"The lack of readily available emergency contact information caused much confusion and angst among university staff and families," the review read.

Worsening the chaos, the review said, some student passengers briefly went missing after arranging their own rides home after they taken from the crash site to Port Alberni. 

"The police and the university lost track of where some of those students had gone," it said.

Some parents, aware there had been fatalities, were still phoning campus security and RCMP a day later to try to find out what had happened to their child.

The university said it is now mandatory for students to provide emergency contacts before a trip, as was recommended in the review.

Dodging potholes is common along the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations have been calling for repairs for decades. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

No night travel on Bamfield road: review

Another recommendation said buses taking UVic students to Bamfield should no longer travel in the dark. The review said the school is one of the only ones whose students arrive at the sciences centre at night, while other universities leave campuses earlier to arrive during daylight.

The September crash happened about an hour after sunset.

"The road is extremely hard on buses. Radiator leaks, broken windows, flat tires and breakdowns are common," the review said. "Darkness does make a difference to drivers."

The review also said the school needs to ensure students wear seatbelts.

Safety issues on the narrow, winding gravel road have been known to the province for decades. The 83-kilometre road has no cell service, rest stops or gas stations and is a regular route for both commuters and logging trucks.

The school said it will join the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and the marine research centre in advocating for the road to be improved.

Parents of students involved in the crash agreed the road needs to be fixed. The review said the families of Machado and Geerdes believe repairs are so critical, they would rather see road improvements prioritized over the creation of memorial scholarships in their children's names.

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