Highway 63 widening promised after Alberta’s latest deadly crash

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Every province and territory in this country has an especially deadly stretch of road, maybe more than one, but few deserve the Highway of Death title more than Alberta's Highway 63.

A fiery head-on April 27 crash between two pickup trucks added seven names to the northern highway's roll of death.

Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds injured in the last decade on the 255-kilometre stretch of two-lane highway from Edmonton to the booming oil-sands centre of Fort McMurray.

Fort McMurray Today newspaper plans a special Sunday supplement to remember all those who've died on Highway 63 and push the government to speed up its planned widening of the road, CBC News reports.

Some 46 people have died on the highway between 2005 and 2009, while there were 25 fatalities from 2001 to 2005. The latest crash has reignited demands to ramp up plans to twin the increasingly busy highway.

"We decided the best way to make the most impact was to have a commemorative memorial edition," said Today managing editor Jessica McIntosh, who's asking highway users to send the paper brief submissions on why the highway needs to be made safer.

Newly-elected Alberta Premier Alison Redford said she'll instruct her next transportation minister to accelerate the billion-dollar twinning project that would double the number of lanes on the highway, CBC reported.

"We need to act faster on that and I will be asking our transportation minister after cabinet is sworn in to make that a priority," Redford said.

CBC noted the comment appeared to contradict her deputy premier, Doug Horner, who said earlier this week the province won't push up the schedule in the wake of last week's crash.

The Edmonton Journal urged Redford to tap Alberta's resource-fuelled Heritage Fund to get the project done. Promises to twin Highway 63 go back to 2006 under then-premier Ralph Klein, the paper observed.

"But six years later, exactly 33 kilometres of that dangerous road have been twinned," the Journal said.

The most recent provincial three-year capital plan "barely addresses Highway 63," the paper noted.

"There is no acceptable justification for the failure of the Klein and [successor Ed] Stelmach governments to be more aggressive in upgrading such a crucial and dangerous highway."

One of the highway's travellers who helped rescue people from last week's crash spoke of an "excruciating" 55-minute wait for emergency help to arrive.

Dion Lefebvre, who saw the accident unfold in his rear-view mirror after one of the vehicles passed his cube van, said it took almost an hour for the nearest responders — volunteer firefighters from Plamondon, about 100 kilometres away — to reach the scene.

"It was absolutely excruciating, the wait we had," he said in the Globe and Mail.

The highway gets basic emergency coverage via mostly volunteer fire departments. But the one in Wandering River, near the crash site, closed two years ago because overworked volunteers were fed up.

The province promised 13 months ago to hire four full-time responders to work the highway, but says it's still reviewing a consultant's report.

Plamondon Fire Chief Hal Pressling told the Globe full-time coverage seems like a "pipedream," adding the overall crash rate doesn't justify local departments providing full-time staff.

Lefebvre helped rescue three people from the wrecked vehicles, including three-and-a-half-year-old Timothy Wheaton, whose parents and two-year-old brother were among the five killed in one of the pickups.

"As soon as I heard Timmy crying, I just darted in," said Lefebvre. "I don't remember how I got into the truck."

Lefebvre used blue moving blankets to wrap around the injured until help arrived.

Timothy Wheaton, who escaped with only scratches and bruises, has been sent to Newfoundland to be with his grandparents.

"Timothy's doing wonderful," his grandfather, Ronald Thompson, told the Globe.

Thompson said the boy has been told his parents are gone.

"It's going to take him a little while to adjust to the full realization of what has happened."