CARBERRY, Man. — A day trip to the casino for a busload of seniors turned to devastation and unimaginable loss Thursday after a fiery crash with a truck on the Trans-Canada Highway west of Winnipeg.
Police said 15 people were killed and 10 more were sent to hospital.
Witnesses recounted rescue workers frantically pulling people from the burning bus near a partially jackknifed semi-trailer truck — its front end crumpled and smashed — amid broken glass, a large bumper and what appeared to be a walker.
The injured suffered mainly head and orthopedic injuries, RCMP said, and both drivers survived.
Police said they were working as fast as possible to identify victims and deliver information to relatives.
"This is a day in Manitoba and across Canada that will be remembered as one of tragedy and incredible sadness," Assistant Commissioner Rob Hill, commanding officer of Manitoba's RCMP, told a news conference.
"To all those waiting (for information), I can't imagine how difficult it is not knowing if the person you love the most will be making it home tonight."
Officials said 12 ambulances responded along with air support to the crash, which occurred in clear weather conditions at about noon at the intersection of the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 5, just north of the town of Carberry.
Carberry is 170 kilometres west of Winnipeg and about halfway between Winnipeg and the Saskatchewan boundary.
RCMP Supt. Rob Lasson said it appears the bus, carrying 25 people from Dauphin and the surrounding area, was crossing the Trans-Canada, heading south, when it was struck.
“The bus had already crossed the westbound lanes and was crossing the eastbound lanes when it was struck by the semi,” said Lasson.
“Immediately, it became apparent that this was a mass casualty situation.”
Lasson declined to speculate on the cause or circumstances of the crash, but said the investigation continues and criminal charges are a possibility.
“(Further) answers will take some time."
A spokesperson for the Sand Hills Casino in Carberry said the van had been scheduled to arrive there later in the day.
Kim Armstrong, the administrator of the Dauphin Active Living Centre, said the bus departed from the lodge in the morning. An ad on Facebook advertised the day trip as coming with a free meal, a player pass and a return drop-off after suppertime.
Armstrong said seniors and community members often go on bus trips to nearby events and casinos.
The senior community is extremely tight knit in the city of about 8,600, she said.
“It’s huge to lose so many individuals of our community and, of course, it is shocking. We just pray for those that are surviving."
The truck company said in a statement it was heartbroken about the crash but had limited details about what happened.
"We are holding out hope that those injured will recover," said William Doherty, CEO of Day & Ross. "We will fully co-operate with the investigation and offer any assistance and support that we can."
In Dauphin, Mayor David Bosiak said, “Literally everyone in town knew someone that was on that bus.”
“There’s a collective feeling of shock … it’s just a tremendous tragedy for our little community.
“It’s a kick in the teeth, a punch in the gut.”
Cam Bennet, a high school teacher in Dauphin, said it has been a bad year for the town.
“We had an accident in Gilbert Plains a few months ago that involved some kids from our school, some deaths. And then we had one of our elders from our school community who died as well not that long ago.”
He said many in the community are waiting to hear the names of those who died.
"I’m not doing any marking tonight. How do you concentrate?”
Nirmesh Vadera, who was working at a business on the side of the highway when the crash happened, said he went outside and saw a transport truck with a smashed engine.
A bus was on fire in the grass on the side of the road. First responders were trying to get people out of the burning vehicle, he said.
“It was burning and all the (firefighters) and medical help and everybody was trying to get them away from the fire. They were just trying to give treatment and everything,” he said.
Michael Stewart was driving nearby when he saw smoke in the distance and flashing lights. As he got closer, the horrific scene became clear.
“I then saw the emergency vehicles and the semi partially jackknifed with front of the cab smashed,” Stewart said in a message online.
“Then I saw the bodies (lying) on the median.”
Lasson said the disaster echoed one in Saskatchewan in 2018, when a semi ran through a stop sign at a rural intersection, striking a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team. Sixteen were killed and 13 were injured.
“We have already linked into the investigators in Saskatchewan, who have firsthand experience and are some of the primary investigators in the investigation with the Humboldt crash,” said Lasson.
The Broncos hockey team reached out on Twitter saying, “We are devastated to learn of the tragic news coming from Carberry."
“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone involved and affected.”
Other messages of condolence and support poured in from across the country.
"My heart breaks hearing the news of the tragic accident near Carberry,'' Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson posted on social media. "My most sincere condolences go out to all those involved.''
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on Twitter, called the news was "incredibly tragic.''
"I'm sending my deepest condolences to those who lost loved ones today, and I'm keeping the injured in my thoughts,'' he said.
"I cannot imagine the pain those affected are feeling — but Canadians are here for you.''
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 15, 2023.
— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg and Kelly Geraldine Malone in Saskatoon
Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press