No charges to be laid in Manitoba bus crash that killed 17 seniors heading to casino

WINNIPEG — A bus driver who drove into the path of a semi-trailer in western Manitoba last year was clearly at fault for the crash that killed 17 people but will not face charges, authorities said Wednesday.

"This was a very tragic collision, and it happened because of a choice made by the bus driver. However, we cannot prove that that choice that day was the result of anything criminal," said RCMP Supt. Rob Lasson.

Lasson, along with other officers and a Crown attorney, explained the results of a year-long investigation into the crash on a section of the Trans-Canada Highway near Carberry, 160 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

The minibus, carrying 24 seniors from Dauphin to a casino, was travelling south on Highway 5 and nearing its destination on June 15, 2023, when it came to an intersection with the Trans-Canada.

Traffic on the Trans-Canada flows freely while vehicles on Highway 5 are met by a stop sign. They then proceed to a median, where there is a yield sign before they can go further. Weather conditions at the time were clear.

The bus stopped, made it to the median then proceeded through the yield sign, even though the truck, heading east on the Trans-Canada, was close and had the right of way, said Crown attorney Chris Vanderhooft.

"The bus driver did not appear to see the semi-truck coming," Vanderhooft said.

Blind spots on the bus, which the driver's company had been operating for about a month, played a role, he added.

The truck driver tried to avoid the crash but could not, Vanderhooft said. Dashcam video from the semi was a key part of the investigation.

RCMP said the video showed the truck had the right of way. The crash caused the bus to burst into flames and end up in a ditch.

Emergency crews rushed to the scene -- ground ambulances and police, then a STARS helicopter. Survivors were taken to hospital in Brandon, and many were airlifted to the province's major trauma centre in Winnipeg. STARS brought in reinforcements from Saskatchewan.

Some who initially survived were taken to hospital but later died. The 17th fatality was 79-year-old Catherine Day, who died a month after the crash.

The investigation found the bus driver was not on his cellphone at the time of the crash, and toxicology reports did not show impairment, Vanderhooft said.

The Crown considered charges of dangerous driving, but decided there was no reasonable likelihood of conviction.

"Momentary inattention does not constitute dangerous driving," Vanderhooft said.

The bus driver suffered severe brain injuries and is unable to care for himself without aid. RCMP said it is unlikely they will ever be able to talk to him about the crash.

Don Stokotelny is among those connected to the tragedy.

His mother, Josephine Stokotelny, 86, was severely injured in the crash and has spent the last year recovering. She suffered brain damage, uses a walker to get around and is in assisted living.

He also knows the bus driver, who he says took care of the seniors "like they were his own."

"I accept it as an accident," Stokotelny said in an interview ahead of the one-year anniversary.

"We have chosen just to offer forgiveness and carry on."

Police and Vanderhooft spent hours with the families on Tuesday explaining the decision not to authorize charges.

Staff Sgt. Sean Grunewald said families reacted with a range of emotions to the news.

"We feel that the families understood the situation...I believe that they feel we put every ounce to give them the answers that they were looking for."

A memorial for those who died was unveiled earlier this month in Dauphin.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 26, 2024.

Brittany Hobson and Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press