They came from the United States, Eastern Canada, China and Japan and were on their final day of a tour through the picturesque Canadian Rocky Mountains when it happened.
Just a couple of hours before the tour’s end in Metro Vancouver on Thursday, the group’s tour bus – then about 25 kilometres south of Merritt in B.C.’s south-central interior – suddenly turned toward the median of the Coquihalla Highway, rolling onto the grassy divider.
In an effort to right the bus, the driver quickly veered in the opposite direction, sending the bus spinning.
Photos of the scene would later show bloodied passengers, some of whom had fallen through the bus’s shattered windows as the vehicle fell to its side and slid across the road, eventually stopping right-side up in a ditch.
Janice Wong, 19, an American citizen from Los Angeles, found herself in a writhing heap of people catapulted from the vehicle.
The scene was so bloody and dusty she couldn’t tell who was who. She screamed out for her parents.
“I couldn’t see – I was panicking at the same time,” Ms. Wong said.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know what the hell just happened. Where’s my parents? Holy crap. Are they dead?’ It was just blood everywhere.”
When the accident occurred on Thursday afternoon, it was sunny and the streets were dry.
The BC Ambulance Service sent 19 ambulances and five air ambulances to the scene. All 56 people on board suffered injuries of varying degrees, including seven who remained in critical condition going into the weekend.
Investigators with the RCMP’s Integrated Collision Analysis Reconstruction Services (ICARS) remained on the scene overnight, poring over the physical evidence left behind. They have also obtained video footage from the dashboard camera of a commercial vehicle that was behind the bus at the time of the crash.
While the investigation is ongoing, authorities have now ruled out speed and highway engineering as contributing factors. The speed limit along that stretch of the highway had recently gone up to 120 kilometres an hour from 110.
“Speed is not an issue – definitely not an issue,” said Sergeant Brian Nightingale, non-commissioned officer in charge of ICARS, southeast district.
“We do have a video of the crash from a dash cam and although I haven’t analyzed it, I don’t think he was even doing the speed limit. He was probably, maybe, slightly under.”
This leaves human and mechanical factors, police say. Super Vacation Canada, a Richmond, B.C.-based company that dubs itself “the largest Chinese tour operator in North America,” said it had contracted the bus and driver from Western Bus Lines Ltd., which has been in business for more than 35 years.
“The bus driver is very experienced,” said Kendy Su, a manager at Super Vacation. He noted, however, that his company may reconsider its partnership with Western Bus Lines if the bus company is found to be at fault in the crash.
Western Bus Lines has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Globe and Mail.
Nick Kam, owner of Super Vacation, said the company sent staff, along with China’s consul general in Vancouver, to visit patients at Kelowna General Hospital and help with translations as needed. The company is also helping facilitate transportation in efforts to reunite families.
“We have never experienced anything like this before,” he said in an interview on Friday. “I could not sleep for the whole night. From my heart, I just hope everyone gets well as soon as possible.”
All but one person aboard the bus was taken to hospital on Thursday. As of Friday, seven remain in critical condition and six in serious condition. The remainder suffered non-life-threatening injuries and many have since been discharged from hospital.
On Friday, the wreckage of the bus was taken to a lot in Kelowna, where ICARS investigators conducted mechanical inspections Sgt. Nightingale has also met with a provincial commercial vehicle safety inspector.
With files from The Canadian Press