Crash of 1980 re­mem­bered

Regina Leader-Post - - News - St. John’s Tele­gram

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.

noth­ing

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.”

Leader-Post files

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...

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