HUMBOLDT, Saskatchewan (AP) — A hockey arena became the epicenter of grief for a small Canadian town on Sunday, as friends and relatives gathered to mourn 15 people killed after a semi-trailer slammed into a bus carrying a youth hockey team in western Canada.
Fourteen were also injured, some critically, in a collision that left a country, its national sport and the hockey obsessed town of Humboldt, Saskatchewan reeling.
The bus had 29 passengers, including the driver, when it crashed at about 5 p.m. Friday on Highway 35, police said. Among the dead are Broncos head coach Darcy Haugan, team captain Logan Schatz and radio announcer Tyler Bieber.
Residents of this town of less than 6,000 have been leaving flowers, team jerseys and personal tributes on the steps of the entrance of the arena, forming a makeshift memorial. One tribute included a Kraft dinner box, a favorite meal of one of those killed.
“We are heartbroken and completely devastated,” said team President Kevin Garinger, who housed one of the players involved in the accident. “We will never forget the members of our Broncos family who were taken from us and who were injured.”
Canadians have become mourners as they have learned more about the identities of the deceased on the bus that was driving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team to a crucial playoff game Friday against the Nipawin Hawks.
“The worst nightmare has happened,” said the league’s president, Bill Chow, as his eyes welled up with tears.
Canadian police said the truck driver was initially detained but has since been released and provided with mental health assistance. Royal Canadian Mounted Police Assistant Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said it’s too early to state a cause for the crash.
“An entire country is in shock and mourning,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “To the entire Humboldt community: We are here for you. As neighbors, as friends, and as Canadians, we grieve alongside you.”
In a tweet, President Donald Trump said he called Trudeau to offer his condolences to the families of victims.
Hassan Masri, an emergency room doctor at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital who has done work in war-torn Syria, said the crash reminded him of an airstrike.
Photographs of the wreckage showed the twisted trailer with most of its wheels in the air and the bus on its side with its back portion destroyed. The force of the crash sent both vehicles into the ditch at the northwest corner of the intersection.
Aerial footage showed the roof of the bus peeled back and its front end destroyed. The trailer of the truck lay nearby in a shattered mess, with bags of its peat moss cargo scattered all around. The tractor part of the truck was intact, lying on its passenger side.
The tractor-trailer would have had to yield to a stop sign before crossing over the highway that the hockey bus was travelling on. There is a stand of trees on the southeast corner of the intersection, limiting visibility of the approach on both roads.
Police said a lot of issues have to be investigated, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.
The tragedy brought to mind an accident in 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos team bus slid off an icy highway and crashed in late December, killing four players.
It also brought Canadians to tears in a country where hockey is a way of life.
The Broncos are a close-knit team who dyed their hair blond for the playoffs. While most of the players were from elsewhere in western Canada, they were put up by families in the small town of Humboldt.
A vigil will be held on the hockey team’s home ice on Sunday night.
Earlier in the weekend, Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench, wearing a green and yellow Broncos team jersey, hugged people as they came to the Elger Petersen Arena in the Saskatchewan town to comfort each other and learn more.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s been tough on everybody,” Muench said. “We’re a small community; some of those kids have been on the team for a number of years. A lot grew up in the community and everybody knows each other.”
Multiple crisis workers were assisting relatives and friends.
“Everybody is just so devastated. These poor young boys,” said Penny Lee, a Humboldt resident.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is a junior ‘A’ hockey league under Hockey Canada, which is part of the Canadian Junior Hockey League. It’s open to North American-born players between the ages of 16 and 20.
Michelle Straschnitzki, who lives in Airdrie, Alberta, said her 18-year old son Ryan was transported to a hospital in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
“We talked to him, but he said he couldn’t feel his lower extremities so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I am freaking out. I am so sad for all of the teammates and I am losing my mind.”
Kevin Henry, a coach who runs a hockey school in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, said he knows players on the team.
“This is I would think one of the darkest days in the history of Saskatchewan, especially because hockey is so ingrained in how we grow up here,” he said.
The hockey world issued messages of condolences, including Saskatchewan native Mike Babcock, who is the Toronto Maple Leafs coach.
Babcock, fighting back tears, said that “it’s got to rip the heart out of your chest.”
The Chicago Blackhawks and Winnipeg Jets wore the name “BRONCOS” instead of their nameplates on Saturday night.
Gllies reported from Toronto.