A group of strangers gathered on a chilly morning this week at a memorial on the highway where a junior hockey team’s bus and a truck crashed last Friday, killing 16 and robbing several young men and teenagers of their potential.
Bob Gallant, an oil worker from Saskatoon, stood at the junction, gesturing toward an oversize stop sign with a red blinking warning light. “How do you miss that?” he said.
“I came up here thinking that I’d see two little country roads,” he added. “But it’s wide open.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is investigating the crash, which has reverberated throughout the country, especially in rural communities where hockey is the glue that binds people. The bus had been chartered by the team, the Broncos, based in Humboldt, about 100 miles away.
In a statement Wednesday, the Mounties said the inquiry would “take significant time,” adding that investigators had conducted “dozens of interviews” and extracted data from the two vehicles’ computers for review by its traffic reconstruction team.
But here at the crossroads of Highway 335 and Highway 35, where there was a constant churn of visitors, the conversation often turned to speculation about what had happened.
Many people said they assumed that the truck driver passed through Highway 35’s stop sign before being hit by the bus. Others suggest that the truck driver, who had only recently completed his training, may have encountered a problem when turning his vehicle left onto Highway 35 and was struck because of a moment’s inattention by the bus driver.
But no one knows, and there is no obvious explanation. On Wednesday the crash claimed another victim: Dayna Brons, the team’s athletic therapist.
The crash, which also injured 13 people, occurred at about 5 p.m. The skies were clear, and the highways free of snow and ice. For the truck driver, the sun was directly ahead as he headed west on Highway 335. But at that time of day, it is still relatively high in the sky.
“People are asking: ‘Is this a really dangerous intersection?'” said Art Lalonde, a farmer who is the top elected official of this small rural municipality. “Well, it’s not. You can see for miles, and it’s absolutely straight.”
At the spot where Highway 335 crosses over Highway 35, the remains of the truck and bus have been taken away. But the air was pungent with the odor of diesel fuel and churned-up earth covered with peat moss, the truck’s cargo.
A shrine, started with a flower cross left by the police, was slowly growing. Stuffed animals, flowers, cards and crosses made from hockey sticks had accumulated. A truck driver stopped, ran out to leave a solar-powered lamp and burst into tears before running back to his cab.
The intersection, known as Armley Corner, has a notorious past. Six white crosses mark a collision in 1997 that killed six family members. They were in a pickup truck that went through the Highway 335 stop sign and was hit by a tractor-trailer truck traveling on Highway 35.
The oversize stop signs, warning lights and streetlights on Highway 335 appeared the next year.
Like on many rural highways in Saskatchewan, which has a population of 1.1 million, traffic volume is comparatively light. According to the Ministry of Highways and Infrastructure, between 1,100 and 1,320 vehicles travel daily on Highway 35, the road the hockey team took; Highway 335, the truck’s route, has about half that amount.
While fatalities from bus crashes are rare in Canada, collisions involving them are relatively common. According to Transport Canada, a federal department, between 2010 and 2015, the most recently available dates, buses were involved in 4,026 collisions, with 574 passengers injured. But during that period, only one passenger died.
The players traveling on the bus ranged in age from 16 to 21. Most had left their families elsewhere in Western Canada and come to live with families in Humboldt to advance their hockey careers.
For them and other members of junior hockey teams across the country, buses become almost as much a part of their lives as ice rinks. While team bus travel is not unique to hockey, as a winter sport it often means taking to the road in potentially dangerous weather.
The routes plied by junior teams like the Broncos often follow secondary highways linking remote communities. The Broncos were going northeast from Humboldt, population 4,800, to a playoff match against their archrivals in Nipawin, population 4,000.
“For me, it was 21 years on a bus.” said Dean Brockman, a former head coach of the Broncos “When you live on a bus, 85 percent of the time you feel like it’s safe. Fifteen percent of the time, it’s either bad weather, late at night or whatever and you talk to the driver all the way home.”
The Broncos’ bus was owned by Charlie’s Charters. The company, which did not respond to requests for comment, works with six other teams, including the Nipawin Hawks.
At the wheel was Glen Doerksen, a 59-year-old from Carrot River, a town just off Highway 335. It would be his last trip. He died in the collision, which obliterated the front of the bus.
The police have not named the 30-year-old driver of the truck, owned by Adesh Deol Trucking of Calgary, Alberta. He survived and was detained before being released.
Sukhmander Singh, the owner of the company, told the Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper, that the man completed his driver training about two weeks ago.
“The driver is not doing well, the guy is going to the doctor, the guy is scared, the guy is not able to eat,” Singh said.
Standing at a corner on Highway 335, Lalonde, the local official, estimated the distance to various visible landmarks in all directions. The closest one was about 2 miles away.
Whatever happened, the bus and the truck collided with colossal force. The crash largely removed the roof from the bus, and the two heavy vehicles traveled a considerable distance, both apparently on their sides, before coming to a stop in a small field to the northwest.
Brian Starkell, the chief of the Nipawin Fire Department, was one of the emergency workers on the scene. He said he had never come across such carnage in his 40-year career.
“Nobody should ever have to see that,” he said. A crane was needed to move the bus roof out of the way and, he said, firefighters shimmied under its wreck to extract some of the injured.
Sean Brandow, the team’s chaplain, was driving to the game behind the team. When he reached the collision scene, he said, he found “groaning and panic and fear and distress and pain — just nothing but darkness.”
Starkell said neighbors and passing motorists appeared with blankets to comfort the injured and to cover the dead.
On Monday, the Connaught council asked that Highway 335 get rumble strips, grooves cut into the pavement to create a warning sound.
Lalonde will not join in the crash speculation. But he said that whatever safety improvements are made, Saskatchewan’s residents may need to rethink how they drive. Speeding is common, he said, on lightly trafficked highways, usually with wide shoulders, that run mainly in straight lines and have relatively few highway patrols.
“The thing that I think makes it a dangerous intersection is that it’s a high speed intersection,” Lalonde said. “Where a lot of your major highways cross out here in the prairies would usually be when you’re going through a small town, where you’re stopping anyways. Nobody’s stopping here.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.