Families 'grieving together' after Humboldt coroner mixup

The families of two young hockey players caught in Friday's tragic bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., say they are "grieving together" after a coroner mistakenly said one of the teens was alive and that the other was dead.

Loved ones of Xavier Labelle, Parker Tobin ask for privacy in wake of crash

Xavier Labelle, right, was initially said to have been killed in Friday's bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., while Parker Tobin, left, was originally believed to have survived, but actually died. (Left: Submitted by Brandon Ewanchyshyn. Right: Submitted by Tanya Labelle)

The families of two young hockey players caught in Friday's tragic bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., say they are "grieving together" after the coroner mistakenly said one of the teens was alive and that the other was dead. 

Xavier Labelle, in fact, survived the crash. Parker Tobin is one of the 15 who died, but was previously said to have survived. Both were riding with their Humboldt Broncos teammates when their bus collided with a semi-trailer. 

The families "hope the focus will remain on those grieving and those recovering, not the confusion in an unimaginable tragedy," according to a joint statement provided to CBC News. 

The brief statement also asks those on social media to respect their privacy as they have decided not to speak to reporters at present.

Labelle lives in Humboldt with his "billet mom" Rene Cannon and her family, who this season also hosted his teammates Adam Herold and Logan Hunter. 

Cannon thought she had lost all three boys in the crash. 

She said she got a call late Sunday night from Labelle's parents saying he was still alive.

I'm grateful to the billet mom of Parker Tobin who believed she was holding her own billet son's hand but held mine.- Rene Cannon, Xavier Labelle's billet mom

"I think in some ways this news was more shocking than the accident," Cannon said.

"I wish all 14 sets of parents could wake up tomorrow and be told there's been a mistake."

She told CBC News on Monday afternoon that her family was leaving Humboldt to go hold Labelle's hand in a Saskatoon hospital room.

Cannon and her husband have two daughters who both said they were looking forward to telling him how much they love him once again.

Despite the joy of finding out Labelle was alive, Cannon said she is still heartbroken by the loss of Herold and Hunter. She said she also feels "great sorrow" for Tobin's family, and the family that billeted him in Humboldt. The team has players from all over Western Canada. 

"Our moment of gratitude for this mistake that gave us back one of our boys is someone else's overwhelming moment of tragedy," Cannon said. "I'm grateful to the billet mom of Parker Tobin who believed she was holding her own billet son's hand but held mine."

Cannon said she spoke with Tobin's billet mom and held her while she grieved. She also spent time with Hunter's parents.

Xavier Labelle with Cannon's two young daughters, aged 10 and 13. (Submitted by Rene Cannon)

When Labelle woke up, she said one of the first things he asked was how Hunter was doing.

"We know the trauma that he is going to have to deal with emotionally," Cannon said. "Each new piece of information is a cut to their heart.

"I think each survivor is going to go through his own special version of hell on earth as they find out more and more information but they will be there to support each other."

Labelle stayed with Cannon's family all last season and this one, prior to the crash. While they've taken in billets for five years, she said that's the longest a billet has stayed with them.

Since the boys' deaths were announced, she said her whole family has also contemplated all the words left unsaid.

"My eldest has said a number of times, 'I wish I could've told them how much I love them," Cannon said. "Regardless of how many times I told her that they knew, she wanted to say it again.

"I know those will be the first things we say to him."

Cannon said Labelle's family told her he is expected to recover from his injuries.

Province apologizes

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice said earlier the Office of the Chief Coroner has apologized for the misidentifications and any confusion created by them.

"We've been in touch with the families. They're fully aware and we want to thank them for their professionalism," said Drew Wilby. "I want to apologize to both of those families on behalf of the chief coroner and the government of Saskatchewan for the error that was made."

Ministry of Justice spokesperson Drew Wilby apologized Monday to the Tobin and Labelle families after the misidentifications were discovered. (Kendall Latimer/CBC )

The families of the two 18-year-old players were notified Sunday night.

Labelle's life-long friend Dane Bumphrey said the entire ordeal has been surreal. Bumphrey had been grieving for the past few days, and had started to reconcile that his friend was gone.

Suddenly, he was woken up Monday morning by some friends on the Broncos, who gave him the good news.

"To have it all reverse, I'm still not exactly sure how to understand it," he said. "It's been a roller-coaster of emotions."

To not be at their son's side, right from the start, would be incredibly traumatic.- Drew Wilby, Saskatchewan justice ministry

The ministry wouldn't release much specific information on how the misidentifications occurred. The situation was complicated as all the players had all dyed their hair blond during the playoff season, and all had similar athletic builds.

Wilby said family members were involved with identification. A makeshift morgue was set up on Saturday in Saskatoon for identification purposes.

Dane Bumphrey says discovering his friend was not killed in the crash has been a surreal experience. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC )

"As you can imagine, with a collision of this nature, there is significant trauma," said Wilby. "The way to 100 per cent confirm this is through dental records. And dental records take time."

The ministry wouldn't release any information on the current condition of Labelle, as it was personal medical information. He remains in hospital.

Wilby apologized to the Labelle family.

"To not be at their son's side, right from the start, would be incredibly traumatic," he said. "Obviously, that's something that potentially could have been prevented earlier."

Fifteen people died after the bus carrying the Broncos and a semi-trailer collided in Saskatchewan. (Amanda Brochu)

The highway crash occurred Friday about 5 p.m. CST. The Broncos were heading to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask.

Since then, outpourings of support have been coming in from across Canada and around the world.

The Broncos also reached out to the affected families.

"Our hearts and prayers go out to the Labelle and Tobin families this morning, as we continue to do everything in our power to support all families of victims of this tragedy and every member of the Humboldt Broncos community," wrote team president Kevin Garinger. 

With files from Kendall Latimer, Alex Soloducha