Not wearing seatbelts contributed to students' deaths in B.C. bus crash: coroner

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A tow-truck crew removes a bus from an embankment next to a logging road near Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 14, 2019. Two students who died in the crash had not been wearing their seatbelts, according to the provincial coroner. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)
A tow-truck crew removes a bus from an embankment next to a logging road near Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 14, 2019. Two students who died in the crash had not been wearing their seatbelts, according to the provincial coroner. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)

A lack of seatbelt use contributed to the deaths of two University of Victoria students who died in a rollover bus crash outside Bamfield, B.C., according to the provincial coroner.

Students Emma Machado and John Geerdes, both 18 years old, were not wearing seatbelts when a charter bus carrying 43 other students left a gravel road and went down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield on Sept. 13, 2019.

Machado and Geerdes were partially ejected out a window as the bus went down the hill.

Neither student was wearing their seatbelt. Reports from the B.C. Coroner's Service said Thursday the coach bus had been refitted with approved seatbelts, but neither the driver nor school staff made students wear them.

John Geerdes of Iowa and Emma Machado of Winnipeg, both 18, were killed when a charter bus with 43 other students on board left a gravel road and went down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2019.
John Geerdes of Iowa and Emma Machado of Winnipeg, both 18, were killed when a charter bus with 43 other students on board left a gravel road and went down an embankment between Port Alberni and Bamfield, B.C., on Sept. 13, 2019.(Submitted by Jose Fajardo/Submitted by Sam Machado)

The use of seatbelts on coach buses is not consistently regulated in Canada. Transport Canada is currently reviewing the national laws, the process having reportedly been expedited after 16 people on the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team died in a crash in 2018.

The bus carrying UVic students was on its way to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre for an annual field trip when it crashed.

A separate report last June made more than 40 recommendations to the university, saying dozens of changes needed to be made to make future field trips safer and to better support families in case of disaster.

The review found the school needed to improve its protocols for hazard assessments, trip-planning, student support and emergency response after falling short in those areas before and after the fatal crash.

It also said the school needed to ensure students wear seatbelts.

Safety issues on the narrow, winding gravel road to Bamfield have been known to the province for decades. The 83-kilometre road has no cell service, rest stops or gas stations and is a regular route for both commuters and logging trucks.

Dodging potholes is common along the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations have been calling for repairs for decades.
Dodging potholes is common along the road between Bamfield and Port Alberni. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations have been calling for repairs for decades.(Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

On the night of the crash, the bus steered to the right of the road to allow an approaching vehicle to pass. The wheels of the bus sank into the soft shoulder and the bus rolled off the edge.

Parents of students involved in the crash agreed the road needs to be fixed. The review said the families of Machado and Geerdes believe repairs were so critical, they would rather see road improvements prioritized over the creation of memorial scholarships in their children's names.