'I don't know why I'm alive,' says survivor still recovering from deadly Manitoba bus crash a year ago

Stokotelny, centre, with her children Lynda Thompson, left, Don Stokotelny and Mary Marzyk. They say they're grateful to everyone who has helped with Josephine's recovery over the last year.  (Warren Kay/CBC - image credit)
Stokotelny, centre, with her children Lynda Thompson, left, Don Stokotelny and Mary Marzyk. They say they're grateful to everyone who has helped with Josephine's recovery over the last year. (Warren Kay/CBC - image credit)

Josephine Stokotelny doesn't remember much about what happened on June 15 of last year.

But she knows it's the day her life changed.

The 86-year-old was among the 25 people on the small bus that departed Dauphin, Man., and was then involved in a collision with a semi-trailer near Carberry, at the intersection of Highway 5 and the Trans-Canada Highway.

"From Neepawa we were driving to the No. 1 highway … and I don't remember seeing what happened," she said.

The crash was one of the deadliest in the province's history, leaving 17 people dead and eight others injured.

Josephine Stokotelny knew many of the people on the bus that day.

"I was very sorry about all these people that died," she said. "And that's why I keep their picture handy and pray for them."

She and her three children spoke with CBC about the crash, her long road to recovery, and questions that remain unanswered nearly a year later.

Warren Kay/CBC
Warren Kay/CBC

It was a Thursday morning when the group on the bus — mostly seniors from the Dauphin area — headed out on a day trip to the casino near Carberry, a roughly 200-kilometre drive to the south.

Don Stokotelny, Josephine's son, knew she was on the bus. She had mentioned she was taking a trip to the casino the day before, he said.

That's why on June 15, 2023, when a friend came into his shop talking about a crash, he immediately feared the worst.

"It hit me and I said, 'I think my mom's on that bus,'" said Don.

As bits of information about the crash trickled out, Don and his sisters, Mary Marzyk and Lynda Thompson, were among the families desperate to learn the fates of their loved ones.

Hours passed before the family got a sign their mom was alive.

Thompson had called a phone line set up for families and was connected to someone at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre.

They asked her to describe her mom, including any identifying features like tattoos, said Thompson. There was a woman at the Winnipeg hospital who had not been identified.

"I said, 'No, my mom wouldn't have any tattoos, but she would have a gold chain and a cross,'" said Thompson. "With that information they said, 'We think you should come here to HSC.'"

The woman was Josephine, and her injuries were extensive.

'Broken from head to toe'

She wasn't breathing on her own. She had a severe head injury, broken ribs, a fractured pelvis and more injuries, said Thompson.

"She was broken from head to toe."

Submitted by Lynda Thompson
Submitted by Lynda Thompson

As doctors and nurses worked to help her heal, the family gradually explained to her what she had lived through — giving her facts, introducing the names of survivors and victims, one person at a time.

"The last person that we shared had passed away was the lady she went on the trip with," said Thompson. "She went on the trip with a girlfriend, and that was the name that we left for last."

Josephine spent two months at Health Sciences Centre, then a month in hospital in Dauphin, before ending up at Deer Lodge Centre in Winnipeg for three months of rehabilitation.

She credits the staff there for helping her learn to walk again.

"I really appreciated that," said Josephine, who now uses a walker.

Submitted by Lynda Thompson
Submitted by Lynda Thompson

She's now in assisted living in Dauphin, instead of her own home. A brain injury has left her with memory issues.

She can't do the things she used to, like driving to see family or going on outings with her friends, said Thompson.

There are parts of her old life Josephine misses — she can't sing like she used to, for example.

"I used to be the choir director here in our Ukrainian Catholic church in Dauphin and I miss that very much," she said.

"I don't know why I'm alive, but anyway, I thank God that I still have my church, and I have my family here, and I'm very thankful."

So is her family.

Submitted by Lynda Thompson
Submitted by Lynda Thompson

Thompson and her brother describe their mother's recovery as a miracle.

"What hasn't changed is her love of life and her energy and her positivity, her faith — all of those things have remained constant," said Thompson.

Questions after crash

There are still unknowns about what happened at the intersection the day of the crash.

RCMP have said dashcam footage shows the semi, which was travelling eastbound on Highway 1 and hit the southbound bus, had the right-of-way.

The investigation into the crash is continuing, police said. In January, RCMP told CBC a package had been sent to the Manitoba Prosecution Service for review and direction on whether charges should be laid.

Don Stokotelny said he asks himself every day what could have happened.

"But in saying that, I knew the driver personally. We also know his family," he said.

"I'm a human being too. I make mistakes, and if he made a mistake, just total forgiveness from our family. It happens every day. It can happen to anybody."

The family wants to see safety improvements at the intersection. Earlier this year, the Manitoba government announced $12 million to upgrade it.

"On a personal level, I hold no grudge to anyone," said Marzyk. "But I would like to see that intersection safe."

Submitted by Lynda Thompson
Submitted by Lynda Thompson

The family say they're grateful to everyone who has helped them along this journey, and they're treasuring the moments they've had together since the crash.

"Getting [Josephine] her second chance, you obviously cherish it more," said Don.

But "quite often you think, well, we get to do this — but, like, there's 17 other families that don't anymore," he said.

"I think we've all learned that whenever there is an opportunity to spend time with family, to make sure you make the most of it and appreciate it, because things could change so quickly," said Thompson.

As the first anniversary of the crash approaches, they're keeping the others on the bus that day in their thoughts.

"We just are so sorry for everybody who don't have the opportunity to be here like my mom is," said Marzyk.

A monument honouring the victims will be unveiled at CN Park in Dauphin on June 15.

Josephine wants to be there to see it.