Crash of 1980 remembered
ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — It’s been nearly three decades, but Mike Lake still has nightmares about the fiery bus crash on a stretch of highway in Saskatchewan that nearly took his life.
“Even the sight of a school bus gives me the shivers,” he said from his home in Rushoon, N.L. this week.
The deadly accident May 28, 1980 remains one of the worst bus crashes in Canadian history.
Only eight of the 30 people on the bus on which Lake was travelling — all members of a Canadian Pacific Railway “steel gang” — survived the fiery three-vehicle collision.
It happened on the Trans-Canada Highway near the small community of Webb, about 270 kilometres west of Regina.
Most of the victims were in their late teens or early 20s.
Twelve were from Newfoundland, nine were from Manitoba and one was from Ontario.
According to news coverage, some of the charred bodies could only be identified by tattoos, clothing or physique.
Lake can’t remember much about the crash.
“I remember hearing people screaming,” he said, crediting a co-worker, Toronto resident George Stewart, for freeing him from the burning bus.
“I don’t remember about that,” he said.
Lake, although badly injured, was one of the lucky ones. He sustained head and neck injuries and was unconscious for two and a half days.
But there was so much confusion over victims’ identities that Lake’s family was initially informed he was among the dead.
Before the crash, Lake was sitting near the rear of the bus and recalls seeing a dark car coming at them and then crash into the bus, causing it to flip on its side.
The bus was then ripped apart when it was hit from behind by a tanker truck carrying liquid asphalt.
The truck driver and two occupants of the car survived the resulting mayhem.
But it took hours for emergency workers to control the blaze, with some witnesses saying “there were bodies all over the place.”
The tiny coastal community of Rushoon, about 200 kilometres west of St. John’s, lost four men in the accident.
Resident Jim Whiffen later wrote a song about the crash. He lost his best friends, and wanted a way to remember them.
“It’s one of the worst things that’s ever happened to our community,” said Whiffen, who worked on the rails for about five years in the early part of his career.
A memorial has also been erected near the site of the crash, about 30 kilometres west of Swift Current, Sask.
While some of those involved never fully recovered emotionally, others viewed it as a wake-up call and made changes in their lives.
Fred Pearson, a native of Petite Forte, N.L., was part of a separate steel gang at the time.
He arrived at the crash site a short time later and remembers the pungent smell of burning asphalt and seeing the charred landscape.
He quit the job a few weeks later and decided to go to university, and now teaches science and information technology at a high school in Deer Lake, N.L.
“Safety didn’t really seem to be a concern with the company,” he said.
“I was young and didn’t really care, until some of your friends are killed.”
Clothing was strewn about the crash site of the car-bus-tanker truck accident on May 28, 1980. The collision happened near Webb. A car side-swiped the 36-passenger bus, which then went out of control and collided with a semi-truck carrying 7,500...