Humboldt bus crash brings back painful memories for Toronto students who survived deadly 1979 crash

A wintry day. A bus full of young people gearing up for a day of sport. Then, a horrific crash. Toronto students who survived a horrific 1979 crash say they know what Humboldt's going through.

'I know exactly — the ones that are alive — what they are going through,' survivor says

A bus carrying students from Weston Collegiate was torn apart after swerving into oncoming traffic and colliding with a truck on Highway 400 on Jan. 25, 1979. (David Cooper/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

A wintry day. A bus full of young people gearing up for a day of sport. Then, a horrific crash. 

The Saskatchewan collision that killed 16 people, including 15 players and staff of the Humboldt Broncos and the team's radio play-by-play announcer, resembles a bus crash that shocked Toronto. 

On Jan. 25, 1979, hundreds of students from Weston Collegiate Institute were travelling north on Highway 400 to a ski hill about two hours north of the city. 

All of a sudden the second bus in a convoy of five slipped on a slushy road and swerved into the path of an oncoming truck. Four students were killed and 35 others injured — five critically — as the bus was torn in two, scattering wreckage across the then-two lane highway.

Former Weston students say news of the Humboldt crash immediately brought back memories from their own harrowing experience.

The wreckage from the fatal crash outside of Tisdale, Sask., captured from above. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"It brought actually tears to my eyes because I know exactly — the ones that are alive — what they are going through," said Helen Cristini, who was on the bus when it crashed. 

"When any other crash happens, it will always come back."

It's easy to see why.

Both collisions involved a chartered bus and a tractor-trailer. Both took place on a notorious stretch of highway. Both were deadly.

Some students were lucky, others weren't

Cristini says she was so excited for the school's annual winter field trip that she overruled her mother, who didn't want her to go on the bus because of the weather.

Rain on the slopes of Honey Pot, a now-defunct ski resort in Maple, Ont., led school officials to divert some of the students to Mount St. Louis.

The bus slipped near a sharp curve in the highway just north of Barrie — a well-known location for car crashes at the time.

Kathy Mann was also on the bus that day.

Helen Cristini survived the crash as a Grade 11 student at Weston Collegiate. She says the Humboldt crash immediately brought back painful memories. (Submitted by Helen Cristini)

She was a senior at the time and wanted to join her friend, Melody, at the front. But a teacher told her to find another seat, so she took one next to a student who was sitting alone, Seth Gruber.

"That was probably the worst thing that could have ever happened to me because I was in the middle and the truck hit us right in the middle," said Mann.

When the vehicles collided, Mann blacked out and doesn't remember anything else about the immediate aftermath. She suffered a concussion, whiplash and a fractured shoulder.

When the Humboldt crash happened, she went looking for photos from her crash. In one Toronto Star photo from that day, she can see how lucky she was to survive. 

"There are four seats, two on the left side of the bus that you can actually see and that was my seat," Mann said.

"The bus was severed right behind me."

Gruber died.

'Mass confusion' followed crash

Alison Bradshaw says every year on Jan. 25 Weston students post online memorials. 

My heart goes out to them so much. I can just imagine the horrors they're going through and they will for the rest of their lives.- Kathy Mann, former Weston Collegiate student.

She went there for several years, but transferred to a different school just months before the incident. When she heard about the collision, she raced to find news about her friends.

"The biggest thing I remember is this mass confusion," said Bradshaw.

"Nobody knew which kids were on which bus."

That uncertainty is reminiscent of the Humboldt tragedy, she says. 

'It's not something you forget'

Kathy Mann, formerly Kathy Jardine, was a senior at Weston Collegiate high school when the bus she was riding to a ski outing crashed. Submitted by Kathy Mann. (Submitted by Kathy Mann)

All three Weston students say they hope the Humboldt families can find the strength to heal.

"My heart goes out to them so much," said Mann, breaking down in tears.

"I can just imagine the horrors they're going through, and they will for the rest of their lives."

Bradshaw says the tragedy broke the air of invincibility she felt as a teenager. She was friends with both Patricia Harris, who died in the crash, and Brent Newsome, who suffered brain damage and spent the rest of his life in palliative care.

"You realize, 'OK, so this is possible, people our age can die and bad things can happen to really good people for no apparent reason,'" Bradshaw said.

Cristini says she still hasn't been able to forget the crash, but offered some advice for the Humboldt survivors.

"They just have to be strong and be together and support each other through this," said Cristini. "It's hard and it's going to take a long time."