Becky Zimmer is an editor and journalist based in Humboldt, Sask.
I was standing in the basement of a community hall, holding a tray of Rice Krispies squares, when I learned about the crash. It was April 6, 2018 – a Friday. I was volunteering at youth night, waiting for the kids to arrive, when someone came in with the news: The Humboldt Broncos’ bus had been involved in an accident on the way to a playoff game in Nipawin, Sask. It was my night off as editor of the Humboldt Journal, the weekly newspaper where I’d worked for the past three years, but I soon received a call from reporter Christopher Lee, who had heard the news as well. We got to work.
Chris and I shortly wound up at the Humboldt Uniplex Jubilee Hall, a left turn away from the Elgar Petersen Arena, home of the Humboldt Broncos. People had started to gather, seeking comfort alongside their neighbours and leaving flowers and mementoes on the stairs leading up the stands that surrounded the ice. Restaurants and businesses dropped off food and coffee in advance of what we feared would be a long, difficult night. It was quickly becoming apparent that the bus crash was not going to result in just minor scrapes and bruises.
I remember looking out at tables filled with high-school students awaiting news about friends and classmates; city officials making the rounds; first responders, grief counsellors and Victims Services volunteers lending support any way they could; groups of Broncos fans, sometimes entire families, crying and hugging as they waited for news. The talk radio station out of Saskatoon played in the corner, in case they had some news people hadn’t heard through gossip or, even worse, unverified social media. As a journalist, you never give fuel to these fires unless you can back them with facts. The problem becomes that facts are slower and more difficult to find than bits of gossip, especially when knowing anything feels better than not knowing at all.
It felt profoundly strange. A major bus crash was not something that happened in a city such as ours. As someone told me that night, it felt as if we were suddenly thrust into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
In those first few hours after the crash, Chris and I found ourselves misplaced, an anomaly of lost identity. We weren’t just reporters covering what would become a globally known tragedy; we were also members of the Humboldt community.
I wanted to be a writer since I was four years old, although I cannot remember exactly why. At the University of Saskatchewan, a professor put me onto journalism as a career. This led me to the University of King’s College journalism program in Halifax, then to my job with the Humboldt Journal, the same paper I grew up reading on a farm half an hour east of the city I still call home.
At the time of the crash, we were a team of four: Chris and I, our publisher, Valerie Durnin, and Krista Prunkl, who handled layout and sales. We covered everything local: minor hockey and baseball games, SPCA fundraisers, dance competitions and city council meetings. We listened to complaints, owned up to our mistakes and even accepted the rare compliment. The Journal is a small weekly paper, 16 to 24 pages, but we worked hard and did our best every week, even if we wouldn’t reach the same amount of people as the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Within the hours and days after the crash, our small community paper was joined by journalists representing every major news outlet in the country. The crash became a national, then international, news story. And we were in the thick of it.
Local companies were overrun with memorial T-shirt orders; politicians and famous athletes were arriving in the city for the vigil quickly planned for the Sunday. Our small staff was overwhelmed – there were too many stories to handle. Members from our sister papers in Tisdale and Flin Flon offered up their support, including Devan Tasa, the editor of the Tisdale Recorder and Parkland Review (Tisdale being only 20 minutes from the crash site). But it always felt like it wasn’t enough.
The bigger news outlets, who had many more reporters covering the crash, always had the stories, the interviews we couldn’t seem to get. They had names of the dead and injured before we did, quotes from the families, responses from organizations such as the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and the NHL. They put the news out faster and reached more people than our little paper and website could. This was our city, and these were our people, but we were always tailing other news outlets, no matter how hard we worked.
One of the reasons was that the journalists who descended on our town were willing to do things my colleagues and I were hesitant about: They walked into schools and churches and approached people for stories even after they were asked not to; they called up a Bronco victim’s second cousin to get a status update on their condition; they arrived at wakes and funeral luncheons to ask people about their relationship to the deceased and to see whether they wanted to comment. People were dealing with their grief with a microphone or camera in their faces. While some might consider it insensitive, it is part of the job – albeit one I couldn’t do. I never have, nor ever will, envy them their task of reporting on such a far-reaching and painful tragedy. But to the journalists working for the bigger news organizations, this was just another day on the job. For me, this was home.
I moved to Humboldt in 2015. It was nice to come back to a place of calm and peace. Here in rural Saskatchewan, downtown empties after 6 p.m., a typical evening out is choosing between the three good restaurants in the city or Dairy Queen, and kids go from riding their bikes late into the night to cruising around in their trucks on Saturday nights. Places such as Danish Oven, Johnny’s Bistro and many other businesses are uniquely Humboldt. Dotting the prairie landscape are countless farms I’ve driven past numerous times since I was a kid.
As a citizen of Humboldt, I mourned with everyone after the crash. As a reporter, I was working – conducting interviews, writing stories and taking pictures.
I was close with one family that lost someone in the crash. When I got the call from my friend’s husband, who was speaking on behalf of the family, saying they wanted me to tell the victim’s story, the first thing I asked was how they were all doing – I was speaking as a friend. The response was: “That isn’t why I called you” and my question went unanswered for the time being.
This wasn’t the first time in my career that I had been treated like a reporter, but this was the first time it stung so badly. Understandably, the entire family was hurting. When I spoke about it later with my dear friend, as she sat with me while my mom died of cancer, she apologized for what happened and said they called me because they wanted me specifically to tell their story. Even if that wasn’t the case, there still wouldn’t have been anything to forgive.
When I asked a city staff member three days after the crash for an interview with Mayor Rob Muench, I was told how busy he was and asked why I had so little compassion for what he was going through. After that, I sat in the Sobeys parking lot holding my husband’s hand and cried for 10 minutes. My brain was numb. I cursed the whole situation. How could this staff member not recognize that we were suffering through this right alongside them? It was my breaking point and I cried for all the stress and worry and sadness that the tragedy had caused my colleagues and my community.
Every night that weekend, I came home and questioned my career choice over rum-and-Cokes and Kim’s Convenience while I tried to reassure my family that I was okay. Each of my siblings called me to see how I was doing. My mom showed up the night of the vigil to sit with me as we watched it from my home, the Elgar Petersen Arena in plain view across the highway from my apartment balcony. Her home was 45 minutes away and she came without my asking her to. My mom just knew that I needed her.
Chris, meanwhile, only had a small group of good friends in Humboldt to make sure he was doing okay, since he had moved to the middle of Saskatchewan to work as a sports reporter straight out of school in Ontario.
He took it hard, crying at his desk after every update of confirmed dead and each time the long list of names of those on the bus was read out. He had just talked to Logan Boulet, 21, on April 3, after a big home win had cut the playoff series with Nipawin to 2-1. After a devastating triple-overtime loss on April 4, Chris gave the players their space, knowing they were not pleased to be going back to Nipawin down 3-1. He sang the praises of players such as Boulet, Brayden Camrud, Logan Schatz and Kaleb Dahlgren long before people around the world knew their names. He was the one who spoke with Darcy Haugan all season about his hopes and goals for his players, both on and off the ice.
Chris was a water-off-a-duck’s-back kind of guy so it was hard to know what he needed at the time. He would say later that he didn’t even know himself. He just put his head down and did his work. The best I or anyone else in the newsroom could think to do was leave counsellor cards on his desk, hoping he would call and talk to someone, and tell him we were there for him if he needed us. We rarely discussed it after the fact, and he took nothing of the Humboldt Broncos with him when he moved home to Ontario six months later.
Humboldt’s radio station is 107.5 The Bolt. We learned the night of the crash that Tyler Bieber, one of its broadcasters, was also a victim. Chris and I had happily worked alongside Mr. Bieber in our two-reporter Humboldt news scrums for years. Even though we were with different outlets, Mr. Bieber was always respectful, fun and a joy to be around.
That is the epitome of small-town reporting: Everyone knows who you are and within six months you’re on a first-name basis with every volunteer organization CEO, city and town staff member, and school principal within a half-hour drive.
To feel connected beyond the everyday grind of writing stories and taking photographs, you make friends, volunteer and have a life outside of the office. But that creates its own challenges. It will always be a balancing act to get tough stories without burning a well-tread bridge that you need to maintain. In a small city such as Humboldt, you live next to those you write about. And you work long hours for little pay, doing a job that used to be spread among a team of 12 but is now done by three or four people. You do it because you care about the community, and because you know your work matters.
This is the reality of what small community news organizations are dealing with across the country. The Humboldt Journal is not alone in this. Nipawin, Tisdale and Melfort, the closest communities to the crash, all have radio stations and newspapers that were doing the same thing as us, both before and after the crash. And just like us, their staff members knew crash victims and families and grieved alongside them while still trying to do their jobs.
The editors and reporters who create these outlets need more support from the communities they cover. Subscription rates for community publications have been declining for the past decade, and people criticize the shrinking of papers caused by ad dollars falling away in favour of digital advertising. Yet these same members of the community will mourn its loss if or when their local paper folds. This isn’t just a problem for Saskatchewan and its weekly community papers, but a problem for communities across the country.
Even after spending a weekend with other major news outlets overshadowing our work and making us question every word we printed, I knew my job was important. I still wouldn’t have changed careers for the world. I still loved reporting on how our small world changes from week to week.
While my career has taken some twists and turns in the three years since the crash – from freelancing back at the Humboldt Journal, which turns 116 years old this year, to my current role as a web editor and freelance journalist for a broadcast company – there will always be a place in my heart for small-town reporters and those little 20-page papers. I hope people fully understand their importance. We won’t see our everyday stories reflected in the national news, and that’s okay. That is why we have our community papers.
April 6 will always have special meaning for us in Humboldt as we remember not only the 16 members of the Humboldt community we lost, but also the 13 survivors, their families and their communities. I hope that those who have been affected by the tragedy find peace.
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