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RCMP work on the scene of a sightseeing bus rollover at the Columbia Icefields near Jasper, Alta. on July 19, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Safety concerns are hampering efforts to recover the damaged sightseeing bus that rolled off a steep glacier road on the weekend, killing three people and sending the other 24 passengers to hospitals across Alberta, the RCMP say.

The circumstances surrounding the Saturday afternoon crash in Jasper National Park remain unclear. The incident sparked a massive rescue mission involving 28 ground ambulances, fixed-wing ambulances and helicopters from over a dozen communities in Alberta.

The Mounties are working to complete a mechanical inspection of the vehicle that rolled off an access road at the Columbia Icefield, a popular tourist attraction in northwest Alberta. But authorities have not yet been able to remove the red-and-white vehicle, which is designed to navigate the steep, rocky roads and the Athabasca Glacier, from the crash site.

Sergeant Rick Bidaisee, the Jasper RCMP detachment commander, on Sunday said its location is also slowing recovery work. RCMP needs to bring in heavy equipment and technical specialists, he said. The bus is upside down on glacial moraine.

“We’re at the infancy stage of the investigation and all steps are being taken to determine, together with our partner agencies, the cause of the rollover,” Sgt. Bidaisee told reporters on Sunday.

Three adults died at the scene of the rollover.

Fourteen patients were transported to hospital in critical condition, primarily with head or pelvis injuries; five were in serious condition, with leg or shoulder fractures; and the remaining five passengers were taken to hospital in stable condition, with minor injuries, according to Alberta Health Services (AHS). Survivors were in medical facilities in Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Banff, the health authority said Sunday.

Police are not yet releasing the names of the deceased as next-of-kin notifications are under way.

Dave McKenna, the president of the Banff-Jasper business for Pursuit, which operates the tours at the Columbia Icefield, confirmed the 22 off-road vehicles used for tours do not have seat belts. They are designed to not exceed 40 kilometres per hour, he noted.

The vehicles date back to the early 1980s, he said at a press conference, but are frequently retrofitted. This is the first serious incident involving one of the vehicles.

The driver of the vehicle was injured in the crash, Mr. McKenna said, declining to elaborate. The coach, which can carry 56 people, was at its maximum capacity under COVID-19 restrictions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday tweeted condolences to the victims’ families and friends.

“To those who lost a loved one in [Saturday’s] bus crash at the Columbia Icefields, know that we are here for you and are keeping you in our thoughts,” he wrote. “We also wish a full recovery to those who were injured. And to the first responders, thank you for your quick action and hard work.”

The bus was ferrying tourists down a steep rocky road to the Athabasca Glacier around 2 p.m. Saturday, according to Vanja Krtolica, who witnessed the incident. He was in a similar coach on the glacier, facing the hill and waiting for the other vehicle to finish its descent so his tour group could return to the visitor centre at the top.

“All of a sudden, everybody started screaming because they saw the coach lose control,” he said Saturday evening, while still in his tour bus with his wife and eight-month-old child as emergency crews worked at the crash scene. “It was careening down that 33 degree … steep hill and lost control.”

The vehicle rolled about five or six times down the hill, Mr. Krtolica said. It stopped with its wheels in the air.

“We watched the whole thing.”

Rob Kanty had just completed the glacier tour with his family on Saturday and was having lunch at the tourist centre when staff told guests to evacuate the parking lot because of an unfolding incident.

Mr. Kanty looked up to where the tours were happening and saw rocks and debris still sliding.

“At first, we thought it was just a rock slide, which was pretty scary in itself. We thought some of those coaches might be trapped on the glacier until they clear the rock slide, that kind of thing,” he said.

“But after looking a little bit closer – we have a camera with a pretty good zoom on it – we were like, ‘Oh God, there’s one of the coaches there, overturned.’ It looked like it had gotten caught in the rock slide and had rolled down the embankment and was on its roof.”

Mr. Kanty said the Ice Explorer vehicles have “monster tires,” huge glass windows and glass ceilings. Certain parts of the tour were a bit of an adrenaline rush, but Mr. Kanty said he at no time felt unsafe.

The Columbia Icefield is about 100 kilometres south of Jasper and 130 kilometres north of Lake Louise, on a highway known as the Icefields Parkway. This remote location, coupled with the number of passengers aboard the tour vehicle, meant emergency crews from a number of different communities responded to the crash. The first ground ambulance arrived from Jasper at 3:17 p.m. and the last patient was transported from the scene at 8:43 p.m., AHS said.

Premier Jason Kenney said he was “saddened” to hear of the accident and thanked emergency workers for responding. “Prayers for all involved in the incident,” he tweeted Saturday.

EMS crews from Calgary, Jasper, Nordegg, Banff, Rocky Mountain House, Canmore, Hinton, Edmonton and Sundre responded to the rollover, AHS said. STARS, an air ambulance service in the province, said it dispatched teams from Grande Prairie, Calgary and Edmonton.

Fixed wing air ambulances from Slave Lake, Lac La Biche and Edmonton, and a chartered helicopter out of Canmore, also responded to the crash. RCMP officers from Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise, along with Parks Canada officials, were dispatched to the scene. The fire departments in Jasper and Lake Louise responded as well.

There were two other tour vehicles on the glacier at the time of the rollover, said Mr. Krtolica, the witness who was on the glacier. The stranded tourists in these vehicles received food, water and blankets while emergency crews tended to the victims at the crash site, he said. The tour vehicle Mr. Krtolica and his family were in got off the glacier around 7 p.m., using the access road.

“The road was seemingly good and no issues,” he said in a message late Saturday.

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