How a small Quebec town was transformed by Canada's worst road accident

It has been 20 years since a bus careened off a steep hill in Les Éboulements in Quebec's Charlevoix region, claiming the lives of 44 people. The town hasn't been the same since.

Bus tragedy in Les Éboulements claimed 44 lives on Thanksgiving Day in 1997

This Oct. 13, 1997, file photo, shows a bus on its side after it plunged into a ravine in Les Éboulements, northeast of Quebec City, killing 44 people. (Jacques Boissinot/Associated Press)

It has been 20 years since a bus careened off a steep hill in Les Éboulements in Quebec's Charlevoix region, claiming the lives of 44 people. 

The vehicle was packed with members of a seniors club in the town of Les Éboulements for a Thanksgiving Day outing when the brakes failed.

Descending down the slope's final curve, it crashed into a ravine.

The bus flipped onto its side and everything went quiet.

"When I close my eyes I can still see the scene," said Luc Malouin, the coroner in charge of the public investigation into the deaths.

The accident on Oct. 13, 1997, described as the worst involving a motor vehicle in Canadian history, led to a number of changes at the provincial level, including a complete rebuilding of that stretch of road.

The Thanksgiving Day crash in Les Éboulements killed 44 people. (Radio-Canada)

It also resulted in stricter rules for mechanical inspections and highlighted the dangers of driver fatigue.

"The bus driver only slept four hours the night before," said Malouin.

"He didn't stop to check the state of his brakes, and he went up the hill in Les Éboulements. There were no brakes."

The crash instantly killed the driver and 43 residents from Saint-Bernard en Beauce.

The deaths have left a hole in the small Quebec town of 2,000 people, many of whom are still grappling with what happened.

The man who missed the bus

Wilfrid Grenier and his wife were supposed to be on the bus with their friends that Thanksgiving Day. With no room on the bus for Grenier's sister, they decided to cancel their trip at the last minute.

They lost 43 friends.

What shook Grenier the most was the death of his neighbours and fellow farmers, Lionel Savoie and Rose-Alice Sylvain.

They lived across the way, they married and had children at the same time as Grenier.

"I said to myself, 'We should have been with the others.' It wasn't our place to be here," said Grenier, who was 67 at the time.

Wilfrid Grenier and his wife were supposed to be on the bus with their friends. (Radio-Canada)

The tragedy left a widespread sense of loss in the town.

The emptiness could be felt in the parish, the local school board, the choir — the seniors club was left with only three members.

"It was quiet for a long time," said Grenier.

At 87 and alone since his wife died, Grenier lives in the same house. He takes the time every Oct. 13 to mourn and honour his friends.

"We get together still, and we have to talk about it," he said. "It stays with us, it always stays with us."

The stretch of road was overhauled in Les Éboulements. (Radio-Canada)

1st on the scene

Pierre Tremblay can still remember the burning smell.

The brakes, which failed at the final curve of the hill, were smoking. The intense odour made it all the way to Isle-aux-Coudres, where the bus was headed.

The former mayor of nearby Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive was one of the first people to arrive and help until first responders reached the scene.

"We saw the bus in the river," he said. "People were one on top of the other. All the windows were broken."

A still from an aerial video at the site of the crash in Les Éboulements. (Radio-Canada)

"In the bus, there wasn't a word. We knew it was bad."

In the ravine, Tremblay and seven others did their best to help, but it was fruitless. The coroner's investigation would later find that the deaths of the 44 people aboard were almost instant.

As the fire trucks rushed to the accident, so did residents to identify those on board.

"They were all in turmoil and in tears," said Tremblay.

The accident would forever change Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, which has since merged with Les Éboulements.

Pierre Tremblay was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He said he couldn't hear any noise from inside the bus. (Radio-Canada)

While Malouin's investigation found that the bus had a number of mechanical issues that contributed to the accident, many blamed the steep hill for the tragedy.

The Lucien Bouchard government launched a $30-million plan to overhaul the daunting slope, even if it wasn't the reason for the accident. It was deemed necessary in order for the region's tourism to survive.

"No one wanted to come by bus to Ilse-aux-Coudres," Tremblay said.

One of the road signs now installed on the hill in Les Éboulements, reminding drivers to check their brakes. (Radio-Canada)

'Hurt in a way that will last forever'

A steady stream of church bells rang out for most of October 1997.

As the sexton at the local parish in Saint-Bernard, Michel Leblond was in charge of the bells and burials on church grounds.

"There were some who lost up to 11 people in the same family," said Leblond, who still holds the same position today.

"They were neighbours, they were friends. There wasn't a single person who wasn't affected."

Michel Leblond says the hurt lives on in the small community after the 1997 tragedy. (Radio-Canada)

The ceremonies and funerals were gruelling for Leblond and other members of the parish.

"We slept maybe two hours per night," he recalled. "It went so quickly to prepare the church and the cemetery. There was so many things."

"We received help from above to get through it."

Last week, the church opened its doors to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. The sombre ceremony drew hundreds to the small church, filling the pews.

"We were hurt in a way that will last forever," said Leblond.

A plaque at the site of the accident. (Radio-Canada)

Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Bruno Savard and Marc-Antoine Lavoie