BATHURST, N.B. – Dale Branch lost his son 16 months ago in a horrifying highway crash, but now he hopes lessons will be learned after a coroner’s jury called Thursday for strict new limits on school travel in bad weather.
Outside the courthouse where the inquest’s 24 recommendations were released, Branch fought back tears as he expressed his gratitude for the jury’s work on behalf of his son and the seven others who died on Jan. 27, 2008, just outside Bathurst.
“What I really feel is that Codey did not just die, and nothing will be done about it,” said Branch. “Hopefully through this, this does not happen to another family again. That’s what I hope.”
The five-member jury heard eight days of testimony into the collision on a slush-covered highway that claimed the lives of seven members of the Bathurst High School boys basketball team and the wife of their coach.
The coroner’s jury is calling for external audits to ensure schools follow provincial transportation regulations, and it wants a policy developed that would essentially ban school travel to and from off-site extracurricular events in bad weather.
Coroner Greg Forestell also wants the shoulder of the highway where the accident happened to be repaired and he said owners of 15-passenger vans be notified that they need motor vehicle inspections done every six months.
The coroner’s jury also recommended that winter tires be mandatory on vehicles used for student travel, and they say only Class 2 bus drivers should allowed to drive school vehicles, and not coaches or parents.
The recommendations from the inquest are not binding on the provincial government, but Education Minister Kelly Lamrock said the vast majority of them can be implemented quickly.
“We obviously want to strike a very important balance here,” he said.
“We want school travel to be as safe as possible. I’m a parent. I have kids in the system. I love them as much as anybody. And we want to also make sure that we do so in a way that does kill the joy of school sports by over-regimenting it.”
Lamrock said about one-third of the recommendations have already been implemented.
Since the accident, the province has stopped using 15-passenger vans for school travel like the one used by the Bathurst school, and it has adopted a number of previous guidelines on student travel as policy.
As well, a new driver training course for coaches and parents will be offered. Officials expect a pilot project to begin in the next few weeks.
Some parents of the boys who died in the crash wept in the courtroom as the recommendations were read aloud.
Outside, the parents said they were pleased by the outcome of the inquest because the changes the jury called for mirrored their own recommendations.
“The recommendations are a lot of what we put in,” said Isabelle Hains, one of the mothers who fought for the inquest. “We’re pleased … but now we have to make sure they are enforced.”
Just after midnight on Jan. 27, 2008, the Bathurst High Phantoms were returning from an away game in Moncton when their 15-passenger school van slid into the path of an oncoming transport truck.
Five of the boys who died – Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Codey Branch, Daniel Hains and Javier Acevedo – were 17 years old. The other two students were Nick Quinn, 16, and Nicholas Kelly, 15.
The eighth victim was Beth Lord, 51, who was a respected teacher at another school.
Her husband, Wayne Lord, and daughter, Katie, along with two players survived the accident.
During the inquest, the jury heard from Lord and the driver of the transport truck, Austin Ward.
Both described how the van veered to the right to give the truck a wide berth as they approached each other.
Lord said the van’s passenger-side wheels caught the edge of the pavement and his resulting steering correction sent the van into a slide into the path of the truck.
Other testimony concentrated on the shoulder of the road and the fact a similar accident occurred at the same spot in December 2008.
Greg Sypher, an investigator for Transport Canada, was critical of the condition of the van, saying it would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection at the time of the accident. He was also critical of the fact the van sported all-season instead of winter tires.
The jury was told that while the van was classified as a passenger vehicle, it was also considered a bus because it carried more than 10 passengers. As a bus it would require a motor vehicle inspection every six months, and drivers were required to keep proper logs. Neither was done.
John McLaughlin, the school district superintendent, said that while provincial guidelines detailed all the requirements, there was no process in place to ensure any were being followed.
The parents of the boys submitted their own list of recommendations for the jury to consider. They included a call for the Education Department to take full responsibility for children’s safety when they travel to off-site extracurricular events, and to prevent such travel in bad weather.
They also say only drivers qualified to drive buses should operate vehicles for student travel.
The parents also want tougher inspection standards for mini-buses now being used by the schools, and random spot checks to ensure proper driver and vehicle logs are being kept.