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As fatal bus crash anniversary approaches, road remains work in progress

For decades, the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni has had a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads on the Island

By Martin Bauman
September 9, 2022
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

As fatal bus crash anniversary approaches, road remains work in progress

For decades, the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni has had a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads on the Island

By Martin Bauman
Sep 9, 2022
Screenshot: Google Maps
Screenshot: Google Maps
Latest News
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

As fatal bus crash anniversary approaches, road remains work in progress

For decades, the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni has had a reputation as one of the most dangerous roads on the Island

By Martin Bauman
September 9, 2022
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As fatal bus crash anniversary approaches, road remains work in progress

Nearly three years since a UVic bus filled with students rolled over on Bamfield Road, killing two passengers, the 76km dirt road linking the Island’s west coast to Port Alberni is still awaiting improvements pledged in the crash’s aftermath.

The province and Huu-ay-aht First Nation pledged a combined $30.7M to upgrade the road in Sept. 2020, one year after UVic students John Geerdes and Emma Machado, both 18, died in the rollover. The project was projected to take three years, with chip-sealing and seal-coat hard surfacing. The province also planned for “improved drainage” to reduce flooding-related closures.

But while road rework and seal coating are projected to be finished between mid-to-late September, the dirt and loose gravel remains—and with it, the risk of another crash.

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A dangerous road

For decades Bamfield Road, which connects the Huu-ay-aht First Nations and Bamfield to Port Alberni, has born a reputation as one of the Island’s most dangerous frequently-traveled roads. The road from Port Alberni bucks and yaws through mountains and river valleys as it wends its way south and west to the coast. 

It’s been the site of multiple car crashes. Huu-ay-aht Coun. Brad Johnson told the Times Colonist in March that some of his nation’s members will opt to boat into Port Alberni for medical care rather than brave the roads. One person was airlifted to hospital last Friday after a gravel truck rolled over near Sarita Lake. 

The Huu-ay-aht have been especially hit hard, with the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation reporting that eight Huu-ay-aht members have died on the road since it opened in the 1970s.

Deadly UVic bus rollover a perfect storm, coroner’s report faults lack of seatbelts

Geerdes and Machado, both first-year science students, were on their way to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre with 43 other students and two teaching assistants when their chartered bus slid off the shoulder of the road and rolled over on Sept. 13, 2019. 

An RCMP report listed oncoming traffic and a curving, narrowing road as contributing factors to the crash.

The BC Coroners Service classified the deaths of Geerdes and Machado as accidental due to blunt force head trauma. Geerdes and Machado were not wearing seat belts when the bus crashed. Belts were available on the vehicle but the driver and school staff did not enforce their use. 

Crash prompts pledge for road improvements, policy changes

UVic requested an independent review of the tragedy and as a result adopted a number of new safety recommendations by February 2021. Those changes include advance planning for trips, clarifying appropriate levels of staffing for field schools, and travelling during daylight hours. The university also mandated emergency contacts for course registration. The review found parents were scrambling to find information about their children after the crash, as it was only optional for students to provide emergency contact information at the time.

The province and Huu-ay-aht First Nations announced they would be collaborating to pave the road between Port Alberni and Bamfield. The Huu-ay-aht had been asking for road safety improvements for years prior to the crash.

“By working in a respectful way with Huu-ay-aht to make upgrades to the Bamfield Road a reality, we see that the Province is ready to work on true reconciliation with First Nations and is honouring the importance of the safety of our community,” Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. said in a joint release.

The Huu-ay-aht pledged $5M for the project and additional “in-kind resources, including gravel from gravel pits on their treaty lands.” The province contributed the remaining $25.7M. 

Road upgrades underway

Resurfacing is expected to be completed this fall. Huu-ay-aht Chief Coun. Robert Dennis told Ha-Shilth-Sa in February that the nation had considered chip-sealing in 2021, but is thankful to have pushed the project to 2022 after a pair of November atmospheric rivers and a January snowstorm led to floods and power outages across the Island’s west coast.

Most of the road will be widened to eight metres, and steeper portions of the road will be fully paved by fall 2023. A seal coat is expected to be complete by the end of this month.

Kilometre markers will also have First Nations art, according to Coun. Edward Johnson, who told Ha-Shilth-Sa the design was citizen-led.

Memorial for students

In the wake of the deadly bus rollover, UVic installed a memorial bench in Finnerty Gardens in remembrance of Geerdes and Machado. The university also established a John Geerdes Memorial Bursary, and a scholarship in Emma’s name.

By Martin Bauman, with files from Cam Welch and Capital Daily staff

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