Humboldt (Canada) (AFP) – Mourners in the tiny Canadian town of Humboldt, still struggling to make sense of a devastating tragedy, gathered at a prayer vigil Sunday to honor the victims of a truck-bus crash that killed 15 of their own and shook North American ice hockey.
Nearly 3,000 people — half of the local population — attended the vigil at the Humboldt Broncos’ arena, which began with an a cappella performance of the national anthem, echoed by the crowd.
Having visited the bedsides of injured players, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and public safety minister Ralph Goodale attended the event, which was punctuated with songs, prayers and a minute of silence.
“By far it’s the biggest event that has ever been in our city. This is tonight one of the steps we have to go through to heal,” said Rob Muench, mayor of the town in Saskatchewan province, wearing a Broncos team jersey.
Police said a collision late Friday between a transport truck and a bus carrying players, coaches and team personnel of the junior hockey team claimed 15 lives and left the other 14 people on the bus injured, some critically.
“I have some friends who died, and I don’t want them to be forgotten. I want to remember, just pay my respects,” Mitchel Mueller, a close friend of several players, told AFP.
Volunteers, many red-eyed, had lined up chairs earlier on Sunday at the arena, where the team were supposed to play a playoff game that fans had excitedly anticipated.
An additional 1,000 chairs were set up at a local curling rink, and live broadcast feeds were planned for other area venues, the Regina Leader-Post reported.
“It’s a close-knit community, everybody gets along and works good together,” said Fred Stanec, a member of St Augustine Catholic Church, which hosted a breakfast in support of the team.
“To have some big tragedy going on now like we had, that really brings us together that much closer. It had a big impact, that’s for sure,” he told AFP.
Dozens of locals, some of them classmates of the dead, camped just outside the arena, where flowers and written tributes have fast piled up.
Players on the stricken team ranged in age from 16 to 21.
– From disbelief to grief –
The physical impact of Friday’s crash was so brutal that it tore open the bus and sent the truck’s cargo of blue-wrapped bales of peat moss flying across a wide area.
It happened at the intersection of highways 35 and 335, between the prairie towns of Tisdale and Nipawin.
Police are still investigating the cause.
The initial disbelief felt by Canadians turned slowly to sorrow and grief once the magnitude of the town’s losses was realized and names of the victims revealed.
“It’s tragic, it’s still kind of settling in, I’m still not really believing it yet. It can take a long time for it to sink in,” said local Calvin Lukan.
The dead included head coach Darcy Haugan and team captain Logan Schatz.
The toll may rise. CBC television said one gravely injured player was being kept on life support until his organs can be harvested.
The crash sent shockwaves through the hockey worlds both of Canada — where the sport is considered akin to a religion — and the United States, which has 24 professional teams in the National Hockey League.
– Hockey world shaken –
The players of two professional National Hockey League teams, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Winnipeg Jets, paid tribute to the Canadian victims by replacing their own names on their jerseys with the word “BRONCOS” for a match in Winnipeg.
Saturday night’s game began after a minute of silence, with the players standing shoulder to shoulder on the ice in a circle of solidarity.
Earlier, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, a Saskatchewan native, fought back tears.
“I grew up right there in Saskatoon,” Babcock said. “I can’t even imagine being a parent or the wife or the kids at home and going through something like this.”
Hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, a retired NHL great, spoke for himself and his wife in a tweet.
“Janet and I have struggled all day with the horrific accident in Saskatchewan. We are so sad for the @HumboldtBroncos families and are praying for them,” Gretzky said.
Tributes poured in from around the world, including from US President Donald Trump.
A campaign on the GoFundMe internet site to raise money for the families of victims that initially aimed to raise Can$800,000 ($626,000 US), had surged past $3.7 million by early Sunday afternoon.