The mourners began turning up before dawn yesterday, forming a line outside the hockey arena where a public memorial was held for the eight local men who died last week in a snowmobiling accident.

Jack Schafer was among the first to arrive, a volunteer driver for one of the hastily arranged shuttle buses used to ferry townsfolk to the arena. His bus was packed, and all were quiet at first — until someone in the back cracked a joke.

“We all started laughing,” said Schafer as he sat by himself in the corner of the arena bleachers, where thousands marched through, to the sounds of bagpipers. “It was what we all needed. To laugh and remember before we started crying.”

The mining town of Sparwood, population 3,600, has been on a similar rollercoaster of emotion since the accident Dec. 28 claimed the lives of Daniel Bjarnason and Kurt Kabel, both 28, Warren Rothel, 33, Kane Rusnak, 30, Thomas Talarico, 32, Blayne Wilson, 26, and Leonard Stier, 45, along with his 20-year-old son Mikel.

They died when a series of avalanches, rushing at speeds of up to 150 km/h, crashed down on them as they rode in the backcountry in nearby Harvey Valley.

Three other snowmobilers on the ride that day — Jeff Adams, James Drake and Jeremy Rusnak — made it out to safety after digging themselves and each other out of the hard-packed snow, sometimes with just bare hands.

Yesterday, photos of the eight victims stood on a makeshift stage, flanked by a pair of shiny new snowmobiles. Tables were set up with memorabilia from the men’s lives, including photos of them on their snowmobiles and with their children.

Mourners doffed baseball caps and held roses as they entered the hall. Two-thousand candles were handed out.

All stood when the victims’ families marched in — including an elderly grandfather gripping tightly to his cane and a three-month-old baby, clutching a soother.

Schafer returned to his hometown from Lethbridge, Alta., for the memorial.

“Everyone has all these layers of connections,” Schafer said yesterday, glancing at the gold ring on his finger before lifting his hand to wipe away his tears and pointing out the word written on his ring.

“Dad,” it read, and Schafer noted he has three sons, all around the same age of the men he was now mourning. “I see this and think about all those men who were dads, sons, brothers.”

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