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Canada A town in mourning, Humboldt searches for answers and solace after deadly bus crash

A cross made out of hockey sticks is seen at the intersection of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash near Tisdale, Sask., on Monday.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Austin Berezowski has been spending a lot of time in the green seats at Humboldt’s Elgar Peterson Arena looking at the empty ice surface.

The 14-year-old is a member of the Humboldt Broncos’ bantam team, and is skillful enough that he has practiced with the Junior A edition. He knew the players; knew some of the 15 who were killed on Friday night when a semi-trailer slammed into the team bus, injuring another 14.

Austin said he headed to the team’s home ice so he could feel like he was with his friends again.

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“I want to skate,” he said on Monday afternoon at the rink. “I just want to get back on the ice and complete what they couldn’t do, I guess. Just skate around again for the last time.

“Just talk to them in my mind, if that makes sense, while I’m skating around,” Austin said. “Just feel the same ice they were on.”

For the teen and many others in the rural community of 6,000, the vigil held on Sunday night was a public time to mourn; Monday brought the start of the painful process of moving on.

But the horrific impact of the crash continued with shocking news that the Saskatchewan coroner’s office had misidentified one of the dead, mixing up the name with one of the living. The mistake, which the service said was flagged by medical staff, but which officials declined to fully explain, meant a player one family believed to be dead was actually alive, and another believed to be alive, had died.

Drew Wilby, spokesperson for Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice, said the coroner’s office mistook the body of 18-year-old goalie Parker Tobin for that of Xavier Labelle. Mr. Labelle is injured, but alive, and Mr. Tobin is among the 15 people who died when the bus carrying the junior-hockey team collided with a semi-truck in northeastern Saskatchewan on Friday.

Family members were told about the mix-up on Sunday night and have been understanding, he said.

“That was a tough phone call,” Mr. Wilby said at a news conference.

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“I don’t think enough can ever be said. All I can do is offer our sincerest apologies, our sincerest condolences and sympathies, in particular to the Tobin family on the news that they would have received yesterday.”

Parker Tobin, the 18-year-old Bronco’s goalie, and Mr. Labelle were of similar stature, the same age and, like the rest of the team, had their hair dyed blond for the playoffs.

“A lot of these boys looked alike,” Mr. Wilby said. “They had the blond hair that was supportive of their team for their playoff run. They’re very similar builds. They’re all very similar ages and they’re very athletic of course.”

The Saskatchewan Health Authority said as of Monday, a dozen survivors were still in a Saskatoon hospital and four remained in critical condition. Four others were in serious condition and four patients were stable.

A family places a cross made of hockey sticks at a makeshift memorial at the intersection of the bus crash.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Matthieu Gomercic was sitting in the back row of the Humboldt Broncos team bus when the crash occurred.

His uncle said that because of the head injury Mr. Gomercic sustained, he doesn’t remember much of the destruction when the semi-trailer slammed into the bus, virtually obliterating it and sending packaged bundles of peat moss scattered across the Prairie.

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“The family tells me it’s astonishing the amount of tears a person can shed,” his uncle, Hubert Girard, said in an e-mailed exchange.

Doctors told Mr. Gomercic on Sunday that the hemorrhaging had stopped, prompting the left-winger to say goodbye to his fellow survivors at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon before making the hour-long trip back to Humboldt for a vigil where the country watched as a community knit together by the team attempted to reconcile its loss in real time.

Mr. Gomercic and Nick Shumlanski are the only Broncos confirmed to have been discharged from the hospital.

“Matthieu has loved playing hockey his whole life. When he was traded to the Broncos, he immediately fell in love with the town of Humboldt, the Broncos organization, his billet family and of course his teammates and friends,” his uncle wrote.

Mr. Shumlanski posted a statement on Twitter thanking people for their support.

He also said he was lucky to have escaped with only minor injuries.

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“The doctor told me it was truly a miracle that I was able to get up and walk away from the accident with very minor injuries and a couple of scars on my body.

“Although reality hasn’t really set in yet, it is truly devastating to have lost so many close friends, brothers and amazing coaches. Times are tough right now but the support you all have shown is so amazing,” he wrote.

Store fronts are decorated with messages of support to the community on Main Street in Humboldt on Monday.

Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Ken and Darlene Lenyk are part of the Broncos’ extended family. They are former billets and are struggling after the crash because they understand how close families become with the young men with whom they share their homes. The couple lost touch with their two former billets and have been trying to contact them since the crash.

“I guess it is our own fault for not keeping in touch,” Mr. Lenyk said. He rubbed his hands constantly as he sat in a recliner in his home. His eyes were wet with tears. “The guilt is there – definitely.”

Mr. and Ms. Lenyk have been in touch with other former billet families since the crash. The network of folks who have had similar experiences with the Broncos is helping, the Lenyks said. They want to talk, reminisce, heal.

“We all are kind of supporting each other,” Ms. Lenyk said in an interview in the family’s home.

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Families are trading notes, he said. “What the boys loved eating, what they didn’t like eating, what their habits were,” he said.

Ms. Lenyk is a retired nurse and Mr. Lenyk is semi-retired. Neither has been able to return to their regular routine since news of the crash broke. They are 39-years sober and will attend a 12-step recovery meeting on Monday evening. That circle has been key to them since the Broncos crash. It means they already have a group of people they already trust.

“When we come together, we’re like a force,” Ms. Lenyk said. “We feed off of that.”

Mr. Lenyk added: “It is easier to have conversations with people that you can understand, you can relate to, and you know that conversation is not going anywhere. The trust is there.”

Lacey, their kitten, napped on the couch beside Ms. Lenyk on Monday afternoon. Pets are a visible part of Humboldt’s healing. Health professionals brought therapy dogs to the arena over the weekend for mourners to pet. “You feel better with an animal,” Ms. Lenyk said. “It just kind of releases some of my anxiety.”

Meanwhile, the father of injured Broncos forward Tyler Smith said on Monday via social media that his son had achieved a positive milestone in his recovery.

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“Tyler had his breathing tube taken out this morning at 3 am. He is able to talk and swallow,” Curtis Smith wrote on Facebook.

Mr. Smith wrote that his son would soon go for an MRI to address other issues – “mainly his left side, broken collarbone and shoulder blade with some vascular and nerve damage.”

About 6,000 people live in Humboldt, which is about 110 kilometres east of Saskatoon. Some of the schools in and around the city were closed on Monday. Flags in Humboldt are at half-mast. Here, kids and adults of all ages play with the Broncos crest on their chests. The interconnectedness means thousands of people must now find a way to recover. The doors at the Elgar Peterson Arena remain unlocked so residents can gather and find help.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Broncos player Nick Shumlanski.
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