Minister of Transportation holds news conference on holiday weekend weather events, including deadly bus crash

Horrible Christmas crash

UPDATE 3:53 p.m.

British Columbia's transport minister says investigators looking into a bus crash that claimed four lives on the Okanagan Connector road on Christmas Eve are also considering another crash involving the same operator days earlier.

Minister Rob Fleming says maintenance contractors were plowing and salting the road, also known as Highway 97C, on the day of the deadly crash that also injured dozens.

Fleming says seven pieces of heavy equipment were working on the road and there was "low precipitation" that day.

His remarks at a news conference come amid questions about the state of the road between Merritt and Kelowna ahead of the Ebus crash, that the RCMP says was "very poor with ice and snow on the road."

Kelowna resident Gord Vizzutti says he travelled the route with the same bus operator on Dec. 20 and described harrowing and icy conditions that also resulted in a less serious crash.

Fleming says investigators are looking at both incidents, but don't have answers about the cause of the Christmas Eve crash yet.

“There’s a lot of questions … We must let the investigators do their work,” he said.

Fleming said Tuesday that “road maintenance crews were on site” plowing and salting the road and “working round the clock” and they were regularly reporting conditions to the ministry on Christmas Eve.

He said the road was being treated within the contractual specifications set by the ministry.

“There were warnings about winter driving conditions,” on the connector, Fleming said, and as a result there was a “much lower volume” of traffic on the road than usual.

He said he was not saying the bus should not have been on the road, but “the advisories we gave were to think about travel and whether it was necessary or not.”

Truck driver Kalwinder Singh says he knows the road well, and regards it as the worst in North America.

Singh was supposed to meet up with his cousin, Karanjot Singh Sodhi, for a family celebration to ring in the new year.

Instead, Singh said he will be picking up the remains of his relative who died in the Ebus crash east of Merritt near the Loon Lake exit. Officials have not released the names of those who died.

Forty-one-year-old Sodhi, who was a new arrival to Canada and was from Punjab, India, leaves behind a wife and two children, a six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, in his home city of Amritsar.

"It's very very, very horrible," Singh said in an interview. "It's really horrible."

The cousins were on an hour-long video call that Singh believes ended about 30 minutes before the crash. They laughed and joked, discussing Sodhi's upcoming visit to Surrey, and the party they were to have.

Around 10 p.m., when Sodhi didn't reach Surrey, Singh said his wife began to worry. Sodhi wasn't answering his phone either.

Singh began calling the police.

About an hour later the family got word of a bus crash on the route their cousin was travelling and that some people had died.

Singh said that's when he began calling hospitals in the area to check if his cousin was among the dead.

On Christmas Day, he said the police called him to say his cousin was one of the victims.

"(Sodhi’s) wife is in a very bad shape after hearing the news. His mother too."

Singh, a long-haul truck driver, said the stretch near the site of the crash along the Okanagan Connector, also known as Highway 97C, is treacherous.

"The B.C. government don't clean the roads," he said. "It's so slippery. If you go to Hope to Kamloops and Kamloops to Golden B.C., to Highway 1 to Calgary — the worst highways I've ever seen in the U.S. or Canada."

The stretch between Kamloops and Golden, B.C., which is about 300 kilometres long usually takes six hours in the summer while it takes about twice that in winter, Singh said.

"I saw so many accidents in just the last two weeks."

Vizzutti and his wife, Patricia Rockwell, were on the Okanagan Connector in an Ebus after leaving Kelowna around 7 a.m. Dec. 20. The Kelowna man described a harrowing trip where near-whiteout conditions blanketed the steep and icy highway.

"Within minutes we felt the bus slip, slide a bit and my wife commented that we almost hit a guardrail," he said.

His wife texted their son in Vancouver saying she was not comfortable in the bus. About 45 minutes later he said the driver nearly rear-ended a pickup and swerved sharply, missing it by centimetres.

"There was an audible gasp from those in the bus. The driver turned around and he said, 'is everyone OK?' And my wife Patricia responded, 'well, we'd be better if you could just slow down a little bit.'"

About 20 minutes after that the bus clipped a semi-trailer truck.

Vizzutti said his wife suffered a gashed forehead, glass in her eyes and mouth, bruises and a concussion.

They were travelling to Vancouver where they planned a brief stopover before heading to Arizona to celebrate Christmas in the sunshine with family.

"But of course that didn't happen."

He and his wife had resolved to chalk up their bus crash and ruined Christmas to experience and just deal with their wounds, he said.

"I was happy to remain in that state until on Christmas morning, I woke up to read the news of this horrific bus crash by the same bus company on the same stretch of road. One that of course had produced significantly far worse effects, and our hearts were just torn apart."

His message to the Ebus drivers, Vizzutti said, is to "slow down."

"I would say for heaven's sake, just pull over and wait for conditions to improve or if conditions are that bad, and you're aware of it at the outset, just simply don't," he said. "Don't leave, stay put."

Alberta-based bus company Ebus paused all its bus routes in B.C. on Boxing Day “due to deteriorating weather conditions,“ according to a statement posted on social media.

The routes resumed Tuesday.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While he is fine physically, Vizzutti said "mentally, it's a whole different story." He says he won't be taking a bus any time soon.

He cannot imagine the mental health of those on the bus that crashed Christmas Eve, killing fellow passenger, he said.

"A life-altering event for so many people. That's for certain."

Among them are Sodhi's loved ones. Singh described his cousin as a "very nice man" who always got his three-year-old son a gift when he visited and played with him.

Singh said Sodhi's father died when he was 13, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister.

"Now his children are without a father."

UPDATE 3:00 p.m.

BC’s Commercial Vehicle and Safety Enforcement team is investigating the deadly bus crash on the Okanagan Connector on Christmas Eve.

Rob Fleming, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, told a Tuesday news conference that because the bus was a commercial vehicle, CVSE will be doing a thorough investigation in tandem with the RCMP investigation.

“I know how important it is for people to get the answers they need and we will take the time needed to conduct thorough investigations to get those answers,” said Fleming. “What we do know is that our maintenance contractors were out all day on Saturday with seven pieces of equipment along the connector, plowing, sanding and salting the highway.”

He points out that there was a notice in effect on DriveBC and on reader boards along Highway 97C warning of winter conditions, but those conditions were not unusual for a high mountain pass.

“Road conditions observed at the crash site immediately following the incident were within the specifications set by the ministry for winter road maintenance,” said Fleming.

He adds that there were no other vehicle incidents reported or observed on the connector that day.

“Again I want to extend my condolences to the families of all those who lost lives in this horrific crash who received this devastating news during the height of the holiday seasons, when they were trying to get together and be with one another.”

The minister also lauded the response by healthcare workers to the tragedy.

“Healthcare workers in the region answered the call in high numbers to ensure that people could receive the urgent care they needed,” said Fleming.

Emergency Management BC also provided support for meals and hotel rooms for a number of travellers who were stranded after the crash and trauma counseling is being offered to those who were involved in the horrific event.

In its latest update, The RCMP says it believes 46 people were on the bus, including the driver. Four people died and 41 other passengers were transported to hospitals in Kelowna, Merritt and Penticton. Seven remained in hospital as of Monday.

ORIGINAL 1:39 p.m.

BC’s transportation minister is holding a news conference at 2 p.m.today.

Rob Fleming will be giving an update on weather events during the holiday weekend, including the bus crash on the Okanagan Connector that left four people dead and more than 50 injured.

The minister will be joined by staff from the ministries of Transportation and Infrastructure, Emergency Management and Climate Readiness and representatives from the River Forecast Centre.

-with files from Canadian Press

More BC News