HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan (AP) — This shattered town mourned its revered local youth hockey team, trying to come to grips with a devastating highway accident that killed 15 players and team personnel and injured the other 14 people on their bus.
People filed into the team’s home arena Sunday night for a vigil, filing up entry steps piled with flowers, jerseys and personal mementos in a makeshift memorial.
At the vigil, Sean Brandow, the local pastor and team chaplain, described how he happened upon the horrific accident scene Friday night and heard sounds of people he knew dying after a semi-trailer slammed into the bus taking the team to a playoff game.
“We travelled up and arrived at the scene … and walked up on a scene I never want to see again, to sounds I never want to hear again,” Brandow said.
The small town’s disaster was a blow, too, for Canada and its national sport. Among the dead were Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.
Brandow said he was on his way to the Broncos game and arrived at the scene right after the collision. He described hearing the cries and holding the hand of a lifeless body.
“To sit and hold the hand of a lifeless body,” he said. “All I saw was darkness and hurt and anguish and fear and confusion. And I had nothing. Nothing. I’m a pastor, I’m supposed to have something.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said the driver of the truck that hit the bus was initially detained but later released and provided with mental health assistance. Police have given no cause for the wreck, saying a lot of issues remained to be investigated, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.
Team President Kevin Garinger choked back tears as he read out the names of the 15 dead to those at the vigil. People embraced each other, crying. Boxes of Kleenex were passed down rows.
Flowers ringed the team logo at center ice. Pictures of the dead and injured stood in front of the audience.
Nick Shumlanski, an injured player who was released from the hospital, attended the vigil wearing his white, green and yellow team jersey, with a bruise under his left eye.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the injured at the hospital Sunday and then attended the vigil. He sat among the crowd with his 11-year-old son, Xavier, who is a hockey player
On the arena’s front steps, one tribute included a Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner box, which was a favorite meal of Evan Thomas, a forward who died in the crash. A bouquet of pink roses adorned the box, which read: “to Evan, game day special, love your billet brother and sister Colten and Shelby.”
Most of the players were from elsewhere in western Canada and they lived with families in Humboldt, a town of about 6,000 people. Families who provide homes for players are a large part of junior hockey in Canada, with players spending years with host families.
Dennis Locke, his wife and three young children came to the arena to hang posters of forward Jaxon Joseph, who was the son of former NHL player Chris Joseph. The Locke family hosted Joseph and treated him like a son.
“Best person ever,” Locke said. “Down to earth, loved playing with the kids.”
His wife wiped away tears from swollen eyes.
Forwards Jacob Leicht, Logan Hunter and Conner Lukan and defensemen Stephen Wack, Adam Herold, Logan Boulet and Xavier Labelle were also among the dead, according to family members and others. Assistant coach Mark Cross, bus driver Glen Doerksen and stats keeper Brody Hinz, who was 18, were also killed.
Herold, who would have turned 17 Thursday, played for the Regina Pat Canadians hockey team until just weeks ago, but was sent to join the Broncos for their playoff round when the Pat Canadians’ season wrapped up, said John Smith, the Pat Canadians’ manager.
As the names of the dead emerge, “it’s getting harder and harder,” Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench said. “This is going to be a long haul for us.”
Norman Mattock, a longtime season ticket holder, said his neighbor housed player Morgan Gobeil, a defenseman who was severely injured.
Three players who stayed with the same family all died in the crash, Mattock added. “They lost them all.”
Players become part of the community fabric, doing volunteer work or serving in restaurants, he said.
“They lost them all,” Mattock said.
The Broncos were a close-knit team who dyed their hair blond for the playoffs. Garinger, the team president, said the team won’t disband. The home page of the team’s website was replaced with a silhouette of a man praying beneath the Broncos’ logo of a mustang.
“We’re devastated,” said Randolph MacLEAN, the hockey club’s vice president. “At the center of this, we have 15 souls who’ll never go home again. We have 29 lives that will never be the same.”
He said that as is the case with small town hockey across Canada, Humboldt’s arena is not just a recreation facility, but a focus of community life with the hockey team at its center.
“It’s an energy that spreads through the town,” he said.
Associated Press writer Jeremy Hainsworth reported this story in Humboldt and AP writer Rob Gillies reported from Toronto.