B.C Premier John Horgan said Thursday the province is working on improving the remote logging road where a bus crash killed two university students this month.
Emma Machado of Winnipeg and John Geerdes of Iowa City, both 18, died after the bus carrying students from the University of Victoria to the Bamfield Marine Science Centre went down an embankment 40 kilometres south of Port Alberni late on Sept. 13.
Seventeen others were hurt, including the driver.
Speaking to reporters, Horgan said he sympathized with the survivors and the families of the victims, and acknowledged safety upgrades are needed.
“I’ve been aware of this for some time, and it’s terrible the tragedy of two lives being lost had to focus our attention on it,” he said.
“But I know that we’re going to be working, [Minister of Transportation] Claire [Trevena] and I and the appropriate forest companies and the Indigenous community, to try and find a way to improve that road.”
The winding 85-kilometre gravel road is the only route connecting Bamfield and the Huu-ay-aht First Nation to other communities on Vancouver Island, including Port Alberni.
Officials and members of the Huu-ay-aht have been calling for safety overhauls and cell service in the area for years, pointing to a growing number of fatal and near-fatal incidents.
Horgan said he heard about the concerns from Huu-ay-aht Chief Robert Dennis 20 years ago, before he was a member of the legislature.
The premier said he has not yet met with Dennis since the fatal crash, but said improving the road would be vital to the community.
“For the Huu-ay-aht people, this is a barrier to their full participation in economic life,” he said.
At least four people have been killed in crashes on the route since 1994, according to local news reports. In 2010, a group of Alberta high school students was stranded overnight when their bus ran into trouble.
Scott Fraser, the longtime MLA for Mid Island-Pacific Rim, spent years calling on the previous Liberal government to turn the road into a provincial highway, putting it under the authority of the Ministry of Transportation.
A 2007 BC Forest Safety Ombudsman’s report recommended “a new public highway designation for resource roads serving as primary or secondary access to communities in B.C.” The ombudsman repeated the call in the following year’s report.
Horgan acknowledged both Fraser’s work and the safety reports, saying they would both be consulted.
The University of Victoria, meanwhile, has said their fall trips to the marine science centre have been running for at least 18 years.
In a statement Thursday, a spokesperson said there are no plans to cancel an upcoming trip in October.
“The outcomes of our review will inform decisions around transportation for that field trip, as well as other future trips,” the school said.
The itinerary for the two-day field trip the University of Victoria students were on recommends groups arrive at 10 p.m., in order to catch low tide the next morning.
Horgan said it’s not his place to tell the university how to conduct its trips, but suggested he supported its review.
“Clearly a bus of that size is not appropriate on that road, and we know that with absolute certainty now,” he said.
An online petition started by one of the survivors of the crash to improve safety on the road has gained more than 8,000 signatures in four days.
— With files from Kylie Stanton
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