The remote Vancouver Island road that was the site of a fatal bus crash on Friday night (Sept. 13) has been a safety concern for decades, according to local leaders.
Huu-ay-aht First Nations chief councillor Robert Dennis Sr. was at the scene on Friday night after a bus carrying more than 40 University of Victoria students rolled down an embankment on its way to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.
Huu-ay-aht is an Indigenous community that primarily resides around the village of Anacla near Bamfield. The main access to Anacla is via Bamfield Road—an approximately 85-kilometre stretch of mostly gravel with no cell service. While the road is heavily used by logging trucks, it also sees a number of regular commuters and tourists.
Dennis and his wife were travelling to their home in Bamfield on Friday night when they were flagged down by another driver on the road. The driver, who was headed towards an area with cell phone reception, told them that there had been an accident about two kilometres up ahead.
|Chief councillor Robert Dennis Sr.|
“When we got there, we saw lots of lights flashing,” said Dennis. The lights belonged to the cell phones of dozens of students, who had already made it to the roadside and were helping others up with rope. Dennis and his wife stopped to assist.
“There was a little bit of unrest,” said Dennis. “One of the younger girls was crying, said she wanted to get home. You could tell they were feeling the effects of the crash. All in all, it was a scary thing to come up to.”
Emergency vehicles arrived more than an hour later. One person had to be extricated from the vehicle by the Port Alberni Fire Department. Two others were found deceased.
Dennis travels the road between Port Alberni and Bamfield around three to four times a week. Although the road is maintained based on logging operations, Dennis said maintenance does not take regular commuters into account. It had been graded only a couple of days ago, but was already starting to develop large potholes due to the heavy rain earlier in the week, he said.
“I would say 90 percent of the road is in decent to poor condition,” he added. “Maintenance does not seem to be an operational priority. We sometimes have to make phone calls. It’s not maintained with public safety in mind, in my view.”
In addition, he added, some parts of the road are “one lane traffic, basically.”
“It’s not a very safe road to be travelling,” he said. “Two vehicles can barely get by each other.”
Dennis explained that he had spoken with the bus driver who was involved in the crash. The driver was “very experienced” on the Bamfield Road.
The cause of the crash is still unknown.
Huu-ay-aht First Nations has been actively trying to work with all levels of governments to address the safety challenges of the road for years. Dennis said that he has been discussing the road since he was first elected to his position, almost 21 years ago.
“Getting a government to pay attention has been a challenge,” he admitted. “The current [provincial] government is in dialogue with us, so we’re making slow progress.”
But the crash on Friday, he said, highlights the need for an immediate meeting with the province to discuss a safe route between Bamfield and Port Alberni.
“This is, to me, an urgent matter requiring our immediate attention,” he added.
Dennis emphasized that this will remain a “number one priority” for Huu-ay-aht over the coming weeks.
“I want to offer my condolences to the families that lost loved ones,” he said. “It’s a tragedy. Who on earth wants to send their kids to school and have this happen?”
He also offered his thanks to emergency responders and the community of Port Alberni for coming together to offer comfort and shelter for the passengers.
“That is very heart touching,” he said. “It’s very good to see that community come together like that. Hats off to Sharie [Minions] and her council and her people.”
Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions has also expressed her concerns about Bamfield Road.
B.C. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena said
“We all know that Huu-ay-aht has really been leading the charge for improvements to the Bamfield Road,” she said on Saturday. “The city has reached out to the province and requested safety improvements to that road as well. It will continue to be a push. There’s a lot of work to be done, and situations like last night really highlight that.”
Claire Trevena, the minister of transportation and infrastructure, said she has heard concerns raised about the road by the Huu-ay-aht First Nation as well as the local member of the legislature, Scott Fraser.
“Ministry officials have been looking into the issue to determine if safety improvements could be made,” Trevena said in an email statement.
“The situation is complex as this is a private, industrial road, operated and maintained by private companies for active forestry operations.”