B.C. mayor questions why highway was not closed due to weather prior to fatal bus crash

The deadly passenger bus crash on Christmas Eve happened on a stretch of highway between Kelowna, B.C., and Merritt. (Jay Bertagnolli/CBC - image credit)
The deadly passenger bus crash on Christmas Eve happened on a stretch of highway between Kelowna, B.C., and Merritt. (Jay Bertagnolli/CBC - image credit)

After a deadly Christmas Eve bus crash on the Okanagan Connector that claimed four lives, the mayor of a city in British Columbia's southern Interior is asking why the road wasn't flagged for closure due to weather.

Police say the bus was travelling west from Kelowna, B.C., toward Merritt when it went off the road, crossed the median and flipped onto its passenger side, coming to rest in the eastbound lanes. Four people died and dozens of others were injured.

Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz says he wonders why the road, also known as Highway 97C , wasn't closed by road maintenance contractors on Christmas Eve.

"I think the contractor should have been a little more proactive on the highway that night and shut that highway down," Goetz said.

"I don't think that highway should have been opened for public transit at that point in time, because it was just far too dangerous."

'Completely covered with ice'

Goetz says Merritt was "completely covered with ice" on Saturday.

"I could not imagine being on the highway at that point in time," he said.

B.C. Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Rob Fleming said Tuesday that maintenance contractors were plowing and salting the road on the day of the deadly crash that also injured dozens.

Fleming also said there were warnings about winter driving conditions and motorists were advised to take extra caution.

WATCH | 7 still in hospital after B.C. bus crash:

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 Tuesday news conference came 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.

'There's a lot of questions'

Goetz says there can be a reluctance to close the highway.

"I think sometimes there's a hesitancy because it's a commerce highway," he said. "It moves goods, there's commerce involved with it. It's all about keeping the commerce flowing, I think, and sometimes that human safety gets lost in that."

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.

The forecast is calling for another drop in Interior temperatures this week, particularly in the alpine areas of the Highway 97 connector.

"Driving is going to be extremely treacherous, especially when you have a thaw session like we've had where a lot of stuff melts and you get runoff onto the road," Const. James Ward with B.C. Highway Patrol — Kelowna said.

"That's going to freeze, turn to ice and then you have the snow falling on top of it so you're going to have those incompatible layers, which initially will make it extremely slippery."