N.B. town re­mem­bers van crash ten years later

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - NATIONAL - KEVIN BISSETT

FREDERICTON — It was just af­ter mid­night on Jan. 12, 2008, when a 15-pas­sen­ger van car­ry­ing the Bathurst High School boys’ bas­ket­ball team lost con­trol on a slushy high­way.

An on­com­ing trans­port truck tore the van apart, killing seven teenage play­ers and the wife of their coach — and brought a grief­stricken north­ern New Brunswick com­mu­nity to its knees.

“I had never seen any­thing like it. There was such pro­found and wide­spread grief through­out the com­mu­nity,” said John McLaugh­lin, the then-su­per­in­ten­dent of the Bathurst school district, who added the tragedy brought mes­sages of con­do­lence from around the world.

“The tragedy of the loss of the prom­ise of those young men, what they could have been and what they dreamed of. That just res­onated with peo­ple ev­ery­where.”

Five of the boys who died — Javier Acevedo, Nathan Cle­land, Justin Cormier, Codey Branch, and Daniel Hains — were 17 years old. The other two stu­dents were Nick Quinn, 16, and Nikki Kelly, 15.

“Part of me died that day when I lost my son. Noth­ing changes for me. Those 10 years — it’s just like yes­ter­day,” Is­abelle Hains, Daniel’s mother, said in an in­ter­view.

“I drove him to school that morn­ing and I don’t know why he spoke about his fu­ture plans that morn­ing with me. He said he wanted to travel to Europe and he talked about his birth­day com­ing up, and it was just like a nor­mal day for me. I never ex­pected that by mid­night that night I would never see him again.”

The team was re­turn­ing from a night game in Monc­ton, N.B. The coach’s wife, Beth Lord, 51, was also killed. Coach Wayne Lord, who was driv­ing the 11-year-old van, his daugh­ter and two team mem­bers sur­vived the crash.

The truck driver was not hurt. Sep­a­rate re­ports by the RCMP and Trans­port Canada iden­ti­fied safety prob­lems with the 15-seat-van, in­clud­ing worn all-sea­son tires, bro­ken brakes and a rust­ing body.

The RCMP report said the 1997 Ford Club Wagon would not have passed safety in­spec­tion at the time of the ac­ci­dent.

In the years that fol­lowed, Hains and other fam­ily mem­bers suc­cess­fully pushed for changes in the ve­hi­cles and rules used for stu­dent travel.

McLaugh­lin, now the prov­ince’s deputy ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, said the tragedy brought about im­por­tant changes, and the trans­port of stu­dents is safer now be­cause of it.

“School dis­tricts are re­quired to make sure that there is com­pli­ance with these poli­cies any time stu­dents travel. I think the sys­tem is safer for stu­dents now than it was then. I only wish, as an ed­u­ca­tional leader, that it had been the prac­tice 10 years ago,” he said.

Some prov­inces have be­gun us­ing mini-buses known as mul­ti­func­tion school ac­tiv­ity buses, and halted the use of the 15-pas­sen­ger vans for stu­dent trans­port.

“They banned them in New­found­land, P.E.I., Nova Sco­tia, Que­bec and New Brunswick, and there are dis­tricts across the coun­try that don’t use them ei­ther, but there are schools out there that are still us­ing them, and I say shame on them,” said Hains.

“Daniel, Javier, Justin, Codey, Nick­o­las, Nathan, Nikki and Beth Lord did not die in vain that night. Their names will be for­ever con­nected to stu­dent trans­porta­tion all across Canada. They will never be for­got­ten,” she said.

The deaths in­spired a 2012 CBC TV movie — not on the tragedy, but on the events that fol­lowed: A year later, the re­con­sti­tuted Bathurst High School Phan­toms won the pro­vin­cial ti­tle.

Start­ing this year, the City of Bathurst will ob­serve a day of mourn­ing on the an­niver­sary by fly­ing flags at half mast.

Mayor Paolo Fongemie said they de­cided against any cer­e­monies be­cause it is still very emo­tional for many in the com­mu­nity.

“The wound is still very much alive. We are still hurt­ing a lot. We wanted the 10th an­niver­sary to be more of a quiet re­flec­tion to al­ways re­mem­ber and never for­get that day,” Fongemie said.

A por­ta­ble bas­ket­ball net was erected at the crash site in the hours fol­low­ing the ac­ci­dent. Ten years later, it re­mains, adorned with pic­tures of the vic­tims — known as the Boys in Red, for their red jer­seys.

THE CANA­DIAN PRESS FILES

Fam­ily and friends hold a vigil in 2009 at the scene of a van crash that killed seven high school bas­ket­ball play­ers and a teacher in 2008 in Bathurst, N.B.

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