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Opinion A letter to the Humboldt semi driver, from someone who knows: ‘I hope you can forgive yourself, too’

Danielle Finney, left, celebrates her 30th birthday with her mother, Paige Finney, at her parents’ home near Prince Albert in October 2003. Her mother would be killed in a highway pile-up the next day.

Terry Lawson

Danielle Finney is a writer and communications professional in Vancouver.

Dear Mr. Sidhu:

Like the rest of the country, I was deeply saddened by news of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy last year, in which 16 people were killed. My heart went out to the families who lost loved ones when your semi-truck crashed into the hockey team’s bus. And now, you await sentencing on March 22.

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I can’t pretend to know precisely what you’re going through, Mr. Sidhu. But I was once on the other side of what happened – and because of that, I truly hope you are able to move forward, all the same.

On an October afternoon in 2003, my mother Paige – 60 years old at the time – was among a line of drivers waiting on a stretch of Saskatchewan highway as a school bus stopped for a drop off. It was sunny and clear out; the highway was flat and straight.

So the man driving the semi-trailer should have seen the bright yellow school bus, or the five or so cars that were stopped on the road dutifully obeying the highway rules. But he didn’t. He wasn’t drunk; he wasn’t texting; there were no visual obstructions. His truck slammed into the lineup of vehicles at almost 100 km/hour. My mom was killed at the scene. Another person died later that evening. Several more were injured.

Like you, the man never set out that day to hurt anyone. He was distracted, as we all are on occasion. He just happened to be driving along a highway, and my mom and the others just happened to be in his path.

I’m not saying his mistake wasn’t serious, and I don’t mean to diminish yours. My family knows that too well. We celebrated my 30th birthday the night before she died. I have never experienced a pain more profound than when I realized I’d never see my mother’s smile again or feel the comfort of one of her hugs.

But what I am saying is that the catastrophic and heartbreaking consequences were caused by a momentary mistake. This is perhaps one of the hardest things for humans to accept: that life is fragile and precarious and just as vulnerable to small, innocent mistakes as it is to big, intentional acts of malice.

While we grieved, we learned about the driver, Frank Buhler. He was 45 years old and from Carrot River, a small Saskatchewan town that I know you are familiar with: You passed through there shortly before you hit the Broncos’ bus last spring. Mr. Buhler was a member of the close-knit Mennonite community, and deeply religious. He was married and the father of five children.

He was charged with two counts of dangerous driving causing death and three counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. During the preliminary hearing 11 months later, Mr. Buhler’s statement to police was read aloud, explaining his state of mind in that moment: He said he had been looking at a junkyard on the east side of the highway, and when he turned his head back to the road, it was too late to avoid the cars in front of him.

To this day, I have a hard time understanding his explanation. I keep thinking that given how flat and straight that section of highway is, he should have seen the colourful spectacle of vehicles from a few hundred metres away, which would have given him plenty of time to react. But whether he was distracted for a minute or a few seconds doesn’t really matter. His distraction was a simple human error, but one that happened to have horrible consequences.

In the end, the judge ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to bring the case to trial and dismissed all charges against Mr. Buhler. It was difficult for many members of my family to accept that the person responsible for my mother’s death wouldn’t even lose his driver’s licence. It’s not that I wanted him to go to jail, because I don’t believe that would have solved anything. But it’s hard to fathom how such a profound loss wouldn’t have an equally severe outcome on the other side.

That doesn’t mean Mr. Buhler didn’t pay for his actions in other ways. At the hearing, one of the first responders recounted a scene from the accident. He said Mr. Buhler had stood looking at the carnage he had created and said, “I wish it had been me, not those innocent people.”

I still get tears in my eyes whenever I think of his words. Although he wasn’t convicted of any wrongdoing in the legal system, I imagine he suffered every day, tormented by his memories of the accident and the knowledge he had killed people.

Sadly, this is now your fate as well.

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Your situation is different, of course. Frank Buhler was an experienced driver with a clean safety record. Your log book indicates that in the 11 days prior to the accident, you committed 70 violations of federal and provincial trucking regulations. A government document submitted at your sentencing hearing stated that you shouldn’t have been on the road that day.

I can appreciate the anguish this news caused the victims’ families and the anger many of them felt toward you, your employer and the safety regulators that let you slip through the cracks.

But I also read that some of the victims’ loved ones offered you compassion. During her victim-impact statement, Christina Haugan, the head coach’s widow, uttered three powerful words: “I forgive you.” Marilyn Cross, the mother of another victim, cried as she spoke about you: “It’s a tragedy for everyone – no one wins here.”

It’s important that you got to hear those words, and it’s equally important that those family members had the chance to say them. I never told Frank Buhler that I forgave him. I thought about it often, but never found my way through the lingering grief to reach out.

He died in June, 2017. The semi he was driving went off the road near Brooks, Alta. It was 4 a.m. We’ll never know what happened; there were no other vehicles involved, and like my mother, Mr. Buhler died instantly. He was 58 years old.

Perhaps the fact that I never got to say “I forgive you” to the man who took my mom’s life is the reason I wanted to write to you. You’ve taken full responsibility for what happened, and I’m sure you endure a terrible punishment in your heart and mind every day. I did not want that for Mr. Buhler.

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As March 22 approaches, I don’t envy the judge who must determine your future. But whatever your sentence, I want you to know you’re not a monster. Just as I hope Frank Buhler was able to forgive himself, I hope that one day, Mr. Sidhu, you can forgive yourself, too.

Sincerely,

Danielle Finney

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