Bathurst school officials thought tires on van suitable for winter before crash

BATHURST, N.B. - The principal of Bathurst High School says there was never any discussion about cancelling the school basketball team's trip because of bad weather before its ill-fated journey last year to an away game in Moncton N.B.

BATHURST, N.B. - The principal of Bathurst High School says there was never any discussion about cancelling the school basketball team's trip because of bad weather before its ill-fated journey last year to an away game in Moncton N.B.

Coleen Ramsay told a coroner's inquest Monday that she was aware of the weather forecast for that day.

Seven members of the boys basketball team and the wife of their coach were killed Jan. 12, 2008, when the van they were travelling in veered across a slush-covered highway into the path of an oncoming transport truck.

Ramsay said since the accident, the school has improved the way it deals with weather information.

"If there was a concern we would always err on the side of caution," she said.



As principal of the school, Ramsay was also president of Bathurst Van Inc. - a body consisting of the principal, two vice-principals and a teacher who owned and maintained school vehicles for extracurricular activities.

On Friday, the province's registrar of motor vehicles testified that the van involved in the crash was given the proper motor vehicle inspection, but it wasn't inspected often enough.

Ramsay said she was unaware such vans were to be inspected every six months.

The inquest has heard that the van had worn all-season tires on it, but Ramsay said she didn't know it wasn't equipped with winter tires.

"My understanding was that it had snow tires on it," she said.

She also told the inquest that she thought the van was about six years old. In fact, the 1997 van was 11 years old at the time of the crash.

Ramsay said Bathurst Van Inc. was set up because schools cannot own vehicles. Money for the purchase and maintenance of the company's vans was raised by the student council.

Drivers of the vans were to have been given basic driver skills training, but Ramsay said teachers didn't get the training because no course was available.

Ramsay said the 15-passenger vans were normally the first choice for student travel and Bathurst High School would only use larger yellow school buses if a van wasn't available or travel involved a large team with lots of equipment.

She said cost of repairs was never an issue, adding: "Our philosophy is if something has to be done, we do it."

Don MacKay, who has since retired as vice-principal and vice-president of Bathurst Van Inc., shouldered most of the duty for the school's three vans, and scheduling their maintenance.

He told the jury that even though the van was more than 10 years old and scheduled to be replaced, they never scrimped on the amount of money spent on maintenance and repairs.

MacKay said he ensured the van was safety inspected annually, and was unaware it should have been done twice a year, adding that he thought that was a guideline.

"The vans were in the shop a number of times during the year and any problems would have been identified," he said.





He also thought the all-season, mud and snow tires used on the van were considered winter tires. Whenever he ordered tires, MacKay said he asked for ones that could be used in winter.

MacKay said there were no complaints from other teachers about the handling of the van, and some actually preferred it over the newer vans.

Outside the court, Isabelle Hains - who lost a son in the crash - said she was disappointed in the answers she heard from the school officials, especially Ramsay.

"You're a school principal and you should know all those guidelines and policies," she said.

Ana Acevedo, whose son Javier was killed, said the Department of Education must be accountable because companies such as Bathurst Van Inc. were in use at schools across the province.

The non-for-profit companies have since been disbanded, but student councils are still responsible for raising funds for vehicle maintenance.

Representatives of the Canadian Union of Public Employees - the union that represents school bus drivers - attended the hearing Monday.

The issue of teachers versus bus drivers at the wheel for school trips has been an issue throughout the inquest.

"While we can't say what would have happened on that night in January 2008, we can say definitely that the safety with Class 2 drivers is above and beyond safer," said Vallie Stearns, a CUPE national representative.

"In addition, those yellow school buses are built for heavy impacts, whereas 15 passenger vans are not."

 
 
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