B.C. bus crash probe to look at earlier incident too, amid questions over icy road

VANCOUVER — British Columbia's transportation minister says investigators looking into a bus crash that claimed four lives on the Okanagan Connector road on Christmas Eve are also considering another involving the same operator days earlier.

Minister Rob Fleming said Tuesday that maintenance contractors were plowing and salting the road, also known as Highway 97C, on the day of the deadly crash that also injured dozens.

A statement from RCMP investigators says the bus, operated by the Alberta-based Ebus company, had seatbelts but "unfortunately it appears the majority of passengers were not wearing them."

It says the bus was travelling west from Kelowna, B.C., towards Merritt when it went off road, crossed the median and flipped onto its passenger side, coming to rest in the eastbound lanes.

Police now say it's believed 46 people were on the bus, including the driver. Earlier reports put the number in the fifties.

Fleming said seven pieces of heavy equipment were maintaining the road on the day of the crash and there was "low precipitation."

His remarks at a news conference come amid concern about the state of the road ahead of the crash.

Police have said that, while the investigation is ongoing, it's believed extremely icy road conditions caused the rollover.

In a statement Tuesday, B.C. RCMP said the road conditions were "fluid, transitioning from clear wet roads to frozen with ice and snow on the road surface due to the time of day (sun setting) and changing weather conditions."

The police say rain and hail was falling.

Kelowna resident Gord Vizzutti said he bought an Ebus ticket for the same route on Dec. 20 and described harrowing and icy conditions that also resulted in a crash.

He said the bus he boarded appeared to have been contracted from a different operator.

Fleming said investigators with the ministry's commercial vehicle safety enforcement team are looking at both incidents, but there aren't answers about the cause of the Christmas Eve crash yet.

"There's a lot of questions that people want answers to, myself included. We don't have those answers today. We must let investigators do their work and report out on anything that may have contributed to such a devastating, tragic occurrence," Fleming said.

He said the province's investigation, which will be publicly released, will include looking at the condition of the bus, its brakes, tires and light systems.

Fleming said that “road maintenance crews were on site” plowing and salting the road and “working round the clock” and they were regularly reporting conditions to the ministry on Christmas Eve.

He said the road was being treated within the contractual specifications set by the ministry.

“There were warnings about winter driving conditions,” on the connector, Fleming said, and as a result there was a “much lower volume” of traffic on the road than usual.

The minister said he was not saying the bus should not have been on the road, but “the advisories we gave were to think about travel and whether it was necessary or not.”

A transportation ministry travel advisory, issued via its DriveBC information portal, was in place Tuesday for the Okanagan Connector, warning drivers to watch for "heavy snow fall, freezing rain," and to avoid non-essential travel.

Vizzutti and his wife, Patricia Rockwell, bought an Ebus ticket and were on the connector after leaving Kelowna around 7 a.m. Dec. 20. The Kelowna man described near-whiteout conditions blanketing the steep and icy highway.

"Within minutes we felt the bus slip, slide a bit and my wife commented that we almost hit a guardrail," he said.

His wife texted their son in Vancouver saying she was not comfortable in the bus. About 45 minutes later he said the driver nearly rear-ended a pickup and swerved sharply, missing it by centimetres.

"There was an audible gasp from those in the bus. The driver turned around and he said, 'is everyone OK?' And my wife Patricia responded, 'well, we'd be better if you could just slow down a little bit.'"

About 20 minutes after that the bus clipped a semi-trailer truck.

Vizzutti said his wife suffered a gashed forehead, glass in her eyes and mouth, bruises and a concussion.

They were travelling to Vancouver where they planned a brief stopover before heading to Arizona to celebrate Christmas in the sunshine with family.

"But of course that didn't happen."

He and his wife had resolved to chalk up their bus crash and ruined Christmas to experience and just deal with their wounds, he said.

"I was happy to remain in that state until on Christmas morning, I woke up to read the news of this horrific bus crash by the same bus company on the same stretch of road. One that of course had produced significantly far worse effects, and our hearts were just torn apart."

His message to the Ebus drivers, Vizzutti said, is to "slow down."

"I would say for heaven's sake, just pull over and wait for conditions to improve or if conditions are that bad, and you're aware of it at the outset, just simply don't," he said. "Don't leave, stay put."

Ebus paused all its bus routes in B.C. on Boxing Day “due to deteriorating weather conditions," according to a statement posted on social media.

The routes resumed Tuesday.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While he is fine physically, Vizzutti said "mentally, it's a whole different story." He said he won't be taking a bus any time soon.

He cannot imagine the mental health of those on the bus that crashed Christmas Eve.

"A life-altering event for so many people. That's for certain."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 27, 2022.

— By Ashley Joannou in Vancouver, and Hina Alam in Fredericton

The Canadian Press