Humboldt (Canada) (AFP) – A shocked Canada was in mourning Saturday after a bus carrying a junior ice hockey team collided with a semi-trailer truck in Saskatchewan province, killing 14 people.
In a country where love of the sport is almost a religion, the crash sparked an outpouring of grief among players and fans, while national political leaders and the head of the National Hockey League expressed their sympathies.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which confirmed the toll, did not say how many of the victims were players or coaches of the Humboldt Broncos team, which hails from a town of 6,000 people.
“An entire country is in shock and mourning today,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
“We are heartbroken knowing many of those we lost had their entire lives in front of them… This is every parent’s worst nightmare. No one should ever have to see their child leave to play the sport they love and never come back.”
Of 29 people on the team’s bus, including the driver, 15 were taken to hospital with injuries.
Tom Straschnitzki told CBC News that his son Ryan is among them.
“He remembers he was in the middle of the bus and then he remembers waking up when the paramedics took him off the bus,” said Straschnitzki, whose son suffered a severe back injury.
The RCMP said three of the injured were in critical condition.
The team comprises 24 players, all from Canada, with the youngest aged 16 and the oldest 21.
The crash happened around 5:00 pm (2300 GMT) Friday on Highway 335 about 28 kilometers (17 miles) north of the town of Tisdale, a trading center in an overwhelmingly agricultural region of the western province.
The truck was heading west and the bus north when they collided, said Curtis Zablocki, Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP in Saskatchewan.
The driver, who was unscathed, was allowed to go free while the RCMP investigate the cause of the crash, Zablocki told reporters.
Broncos coach Darcy Haugan was killed in the accident, his sister later told CBC television, though the identity of other victims has not yet been revealed.
The team was heading north for a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game against the Nipawin Hawks.
Special police investigators were still at the scene early Saturday, roughly 150 kilometers east of Prince Albert City.
The flat prairie around the crash site is covered with snow, traces of which can be seen on the plowed roads.
The Saskatchewan league is a feeder system for higher levels of hockey, with many graduating to play at US and Canadian colleges and major junior league level, while some go on to the professional National Hockey League (NHL).
Similar leagues operate throughout the country, their buses a regular feature of the vast country’s highways.
Victims’ families, friends and supporters of the team gathered at a Nipawin church for information and support.
“I’m here to help,” said a sticker on one woman’s blouse.
The STARS Air Ambulance service said two of its helicopters flew to the remote scene.
Two hospitals in Saskatoon city, about 250 kilometers from the crash site, received “a high volume of incoming trauma cases,” the Saskatchewan Health Authority said.
“Last night can only be described as the longest, worst and most tragic night of my career,” hospital doctor Hassan McMasri said in a Facebook post.
“The images can’t be unseen or forgotten, the stories can’t be unheard or ignored.”
– ‘Our boys’ –
US President Donald Trump said he called Trudeau “to pay my highest respect and condolences to the families of the terrible Humboldt Team tragedy.”
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe retweeted a photo of one player who survived, Derek Patter, lying side-by-side with two other injured players on hospital beds, clasping each other’s hands in support. One of the young men appeared to be wearing a neck brace.
“Saskatchewan, these are our boys,” said Moe, the province’s top politician.
Hockey Canada, the governing body for the sport at grassroots levels, said the “tight-knit” hockey family will unite in the face of the tragedy.
– ‘My heart is in Humboldt’ –
Fans and players alike shared condolences using the hashtag #PrayforHumboldt, and some hotels offered free lodging for family members.
A GoFundMe campaign for affected players and their families had raised more than $1.1 million, fast approaching its $2 million goal by Saturday afternoon.
“2night my heart is in Humboldt,” tweeted Anaheim Ducks NHL defenseman Steven Oleksy.
The league’s commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL “mourns the passing of those who perished and offers strength and comfort to those injured while traveling to play and be part of a game they all love.”
The collision brought back memories of a bus crash in December 1986, also in Saskatchewan, that killed four members of the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos.
In January 2008, seven basketball players on a youth team and their coach’s wife died in New Brunswick when a semi-trailer clipped their van at night.