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Rescue is harrowingly lacking on Trans-Canada Highway

Hanging there, nearly upside down, she was convinced she had just killed her sister and paralyzed her best friend.

It had all happened so quickly. It was mid-January and Kelly Draves was driving home to Pembroke, Ont., from North Bay, where the 23-year-old is taking a teaching course at Nipissing University. On a lonely stretch of Highway 17 – so lonely there were fortunately no other vehicles coming the other way – she hit an icy patch and fishtailed into the other lane.

She brought the pickup truck back but then it fishtailed again and she lost control, the GMC Sierra 2500 flipping over twice as it hit the ditch and coming to rest passenger side down against a rock cut that, had it been any closer, likely would have killed them all.

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Her friend Sarah Wagner, also a student, was screaming in the back. Her sister, Allison, was completely silent in the front.

Ms. Draves found herself oddly calm. She could see that her cellphone was in the snow outside the now-missing passenger window. Her sister was stirring now, shaken but apparently okay, and Ms. Draves was able to direct Allison, who is visually impaired, to reach the phone and hand it to her.

She dialed 911 and told the operator what had happened and where they were – and then they waited … and waited.

"It seemed to take forever," she says.

Other vehicles went by but none stopped. She thought they must be out of sight. It was cold and getting colder.

She couldn't get out of her seatbelt. She thought if they could break the windshield they could get out. There was an axe under the seat – "We live on a farm" – but none of them could reach it.

One man stopped, then two others. They brought blankets to keep the young women warm while everyone waited … and waited. One of the men was an off-duty paramedic and thought they'd need the "jaws of life" to extricate the women. They decided to wait until the fire department arrived before attempting anything.

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A woman passing by lost control of her car and bounced into the ditch opposite but was, fortunately, unharmed. Now there were two accidents, but still no help.

Kelly Draves was upside down for a least an hour before, finally, firefighters from Mattawa, a small town well to the north, arrived and decided to remove the front windshield. The three women were small enough to scramble out to safety.

"Had we been any larger," Ms. Draves says, "they would have needed the jaws."

It was only after this incident that it became clear that if you're going to have a serious accident, you'd better not have it on this 30-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway.

The township of Head, Clara and Maria has 238 citizens. It has no fire department. There was once a small fire brigade of volunteers but they got too old to continue effectively. As Mayor Jim Gibson matter-of-factly puts it, if your home catches fire here, "it burns to the ground."

As for highway help, the prospects aren't all that much better. Until last fall, Head, Clara and Maria had a mutual-aid agreement with neighbouring municipalities, but that stopped when the others found their fire departments – one volunteer, one paid – would be too strapped if they committed to services outside their area of responsibility.

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The operator who took Ms. Draves's 911 call contacted the nearest township, Laurentian Hills, but the fire chief there felt he could not risk sending his small volunteer group so far away. Some have called the chief heartless but Mr. Gibson defends the chief's call and says he would have made it himself.

For Head, Clara and Maria to have its own extrication equipment, Mr. Gibson says, it would blow the tiny township's budget. His council hoped to strike a "pay-as-you-go" arrangement but has not been successful.

The issue has become huge on this two-lane highway that runs along the Ottawa River between the city of North Bay and Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, just north of the city of Pembroke. Long tagged "Death Highway," the 230-kilometre stretch between Arnprior and Mattawa had 56 fatal collisions in the first decade of this century.

Petawawa councillor Treena Lemay, who also serves as chair of the local police services board, has lobbied for years for the highway to be doubled to four lanes. It is, slowly, happening in the southern sector but is decades away from reaching her area of concern.

A Facebook page, "Safe on 17," has attracted a good deal of local reaction. "This highway is the worst in the country," one entry says in pleading for four lanes. "It's a death trap. A posting to Petawawa means playing Russian roulette driving that road …"

Ms. Lemay says the lack of critical services in Head, Clara and Maria is unacceptable. "I'm really concerned. This is a 30-kilometre stretch of highway where there's no possibility of extrication if it's required."

John Yakabuski, the area's long-time member of the Ontario legislature, has asked the neighbouring mayors to meet and, somehow, "work it out."

Mr. Yakabuski says he fully appreciates the financial realities of such small municipalities but says that "it's not acceptable to not have that service. It's the Trans-Canada Highway. We have to get this done."

Ms. Lemay agrees: "Does the federal government have anything to say? They've got billions of dollars to spend on infrastructure. What better infrastructure spending could there be than to address the problems with the Trans-Canada Highway.

"We're at a point where we can only say, 'This doesn't make sense.' It's just stupid," she says.

"Is there any way we can resolve this thing?" Mr. Gibson asks. If the municipalities cannot reach an arrangement that works for all, he wants the province to step in, as Highway 17 is a provincial concern. And if the province won't act, he plans to go to the federal Minister of Defence.

"This is the Trans-Canada Highway," he plans to say. "Will you ask Garrison Petawawa to supply extrication services if they're needed? You've got the trained personnel – have them jump in their helicopter and get their ass up here."

As for Kelly Draves, she is still driving the route each week – although in a slightly newer model GMC Sierra 2500. No charges were laid as she had not been speeding and others also hit the black ice and crashed.

"I hope an extrication agreement is made so that no one loses a family member at the expense of a disagreement," she says. She also hopes road maintenance along that stretch can be improved.

"Had I lost my sister or friend, no amount of money would ever replace them. Money and vehicles can be replaced – but a life is priceless."

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More


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