KELOWNA, B.C. — Truck driver Kalwinder Singh says he knows the Okanagan Connector well, and regards the British Columbia highway as among the worst roads in North America.
The Surrey, B.C., resident was supposed to meet up with his cousin, Karanjot Singh Sodhi, for a family celebration to ring in the new year.
Instead, Singh will be picking up the remains of his relative who died in a bus crash on an icy stretch of the connector on Christmas Eve.
“It’s very, very, very horrible,” Singh said in an interview. “It’s really horrible.”
Forty-one-year-old Sodhi, who was a new arrival to Canada from India, leaves behind a wife, a six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter in their home city of Amritsar, in Punjab.
B.C.'s Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said investigators looking into the deadly rollover that claimed four lives are also investigating another crash involving the same operator on the same route days earlier.
Fleming said at a news conference that there would be no answers before investigators could "do their work and report out on anything that may have contributed to such a devastating, tragic occurrence."
A statement from RCMP investigators said the bus, operated by Alberta-based Ebus, had seatbelts but "unfortunately it appears the majority of passengers were not wearing them."
The cousins were on an hour-long video call just before the crash early Saturday evening. They laughed and joked, discussing Sodhi's upcoming visit, and the party they were to have.
Around 10 p.m., when Sodhi didn't reach Surrey, Singh said his wife began to worry. Sodhi wasn't answering his phone either.
Singh began calling the police. About an hour later the family got word of a bus crash on the route their cousin was travelling and that some people had died.
Singh said that's when he began calling hospitals in the area to check if his cousin was among the dead.
On Christmas Day the police called him to say his cousin was one of the victims, he said.
“(Sodhi’s) wife is in a very bad shape after hearing the news. His mother too.”
Singh, a long-haul truck driver, said the stretch near the site of the crash along the Okanagan Connector, also known as Highway 97C, is treacherous.
"The B.C. government don't clean the roads," he said. "It's so slippery. If you go to Hope to Kamloops and Kamloops to Golden B.C., to Highway 1 to Calgary — the worst highways I've ever seen in the U.S. or Canada."
The stretch between Kamloops and Golden, B.C., which is about 300 kilometres long, usually takes six hours in the summer while it takes about twice that in winter, Singh said.
"I saw so many accidents in just the last two weeks."
Bill Gerber and his family came upon the scene a few minutes after the crash when they were travelling down the highway to Kelowna from Abbotsford. It was 6:36 p.m.
He said drivers who had got out of their vehicles told them there was an accident ahead.
"Then we saw the people before we looked ahead. And we saw the bus. Then it's like, 'oh my goodness, it's a bus. There's a bus. This is a bus accident,'" he said with a gasp, recalling the scene.
"You know, it took a second … it was kind of a shock to see it because we've never seen a bus accident before in our lives. It was a little overwhelming."
His daughter, Brooklyn, and wife, Bonnie, jumped out of the car to help other passersby aiding victims, he said.
Gerber's wife is a retired nurse while his daughter has lifeguard training.
His wife told him that when she opened the car she heard people crying, others giving orders to bring first aid kits and those who were comforting victims, he said.
The family gave out blankets and let people use their phones to call loved ones, he said. They helped for about an hour and a half before getting back in their car, he said
Gerber said images from that evening will stay with him for life.
"It just breaks my heart and, I guess I'm a bit of an emotional guy or something but I just can't help but be so, so sad for these people who, in a blink of an eye have had their lives changed," he said. "Their worlds have changed."
Among them are Sodhi's loved ones.
Singh recalled his cousin as a "very nice man" who always got his three-year-old son a gift when he visited and played with him.
Sodhi's father died when he was 13, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister, he said.
"Now his children are without a father."
— By Hina Alam in Fredericton, with files from Ashley Joannou in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 27, 2022.
The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly described Karanjot Singh Sodhi as a truck driver. Also, drops an incorrect reference to the day of the accident in 19th graf.