Road to Vancouver Island marine centre no stranger to bus trouble before deadly crash

Coach buses carrying eager biology students to a prized marine research centre on Vancouver Island ran into trouble navigating gnarled logging roads on two separate annual trips, years before a rollover crash in the same area killed two teenage students late Friday night.

Two years ago, Chantal Lewis and her classmates from the University of Victoria had to crawl out windows and jump to the ground one-by-one after their charter bus skidded off the main gravel road leading from Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre just before dusk on Sept. 17, 2017. The bus, taking students back to Victoria after a weekend field trip to the centre, wasn't far outside the small community near Port Alberni.

"I remember we hit some sort of a bump that made the bus jump [and] I could feel us up in the air. Instantly, we went into a ditch," said Lewis, now 20, speaking by phone from her hometown of Calgary on Monday. "We could not get out the door ... we were all shaken up."

The crash left the bus tilted, door side down, against the brush over a muddy culvert. None of the roughly 30 students or staff on board were hurt and caught another bus back to Victoria several hours later.

Elyssa Baker via Chantal Lewis

Late Friday night, another bus carrying 50 people crashed on the gravel road, just west of Francis Lake, and rolled down an embankment during a downpour. Two UVic students were killed, more than a dozen were hospitalized and the survivors left distraught.

It was the third bus crash involving students en route to the same science centre in the last decade.

The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

Elyssa Baker via Chantal Lewis

News that another bus travelling the same road to the same marine centre had crashed — nearly two years to the day after what she experienced — has left Lewis frustrated, saying the route between the city and the centre is in desperate need of repair, if schools want to continue sending students on field trips to the coast. The calls for improved safety have been echoed by locals who have tried to get the road fixed for decades.

The field trip to Bamfield is a department tradition at UVic offering first-year biology students an opportunity to immerse themselves in field study for a weekend each September. UVic is one of several universities that help run the centre, though students from many schools can go for days at a time.

Lewis, then 18, was less than a month into her first university experience when she signed up for her class trip. She said no one warned her how rough the ride to the centre could be.

"The road is treacherous," Lewis said. "It's like constant turbulence on a plane but an hour and a half [on the ] road. It was awful." 

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

The main road to the centre is a logging road which, bus drivers say, is only maintained by logging companies during the active logging season. The route is narrow, bumpy, winding and filled with cavernous potholes. Some bus drivers on the island refuse to drive it at all because it is an exhausting, white-knuckle trip.

"I don't take my buses out there anymore because of the risks," Marina Gaiga, who runs Alberni Island Shuttle, said Monday.

Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press

Driver Brendan McCollough, now 61, was stranded overnight with a group of students from Edmonton after their bus got stuck between washouts in September 2010. The area does not have cellphone service and the group was left to spend the night in the bush, waiting more than 18 hours before loggers found them and went for help.

"There are lots of drivers that that just won't do it because it's very taxing," said McCollough, who has 43 years' experience driving buses on Vancouver Island. 

"On roads like that, you have to be on the ball all the time because the conditions can suddenly change … there's just a million things that can happen."

Dean Stoltz/CHEK News

Lewis, who returned to her hometown in Calgary several months ago after two years studying at UVic, said she does not want schools to stop going to Bamfield because it's an exciting, valuable experience for biology students. That said, she feels frustrated and upset to see another crash with tragic consequences.

The students killed Friday were a woman from Winnipeg and a man from Iowa City, Iowa. Both were 18 years old — the same age as Lewis was when her bus went into the ditch.

"It just hit very close to home," she said.