'This is something beautiful': UVic holds gathering after 2 students killed in bus crash

Natalia Thiessen was in her first-year calculus class at the University of Victoria in early September when Emma Machado sat down beside her.

Thiessen said Machado instantly introduced herself.

"She was this bright, cheery, wonderful person," Thiessen recalled.

The two learned they were in the same biology class. Thiessen said Machado encouraged her to go on a class field trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, but Thiessen couldn't make it because of her class schedule.

On Friday, Machado, 18, died when the bus travelling to the science centre crashed on a logging road and rolled down an embankment near Port Alberni, B.C.

A second student, 18-year-old John Geerdes, also died. Seventeen people were injured in the crash.

Thiessen attended a gathering on Tuesday at the university to remember her new friend.

"I wanted to be a part of the community," Thiessen said, standing outside the Mearns Centre for Learning where the gathering was held.

Mike McArthur/CBC

'Taken far too soon'

Inside, university elder May Sam opened the program with a blessing. University leaders then offered brief remarks to a crowd of students, faculty and staff.

"This is something beautiful here this afternoon," said Shelagh Rogers, the university's chancellor. 

"A lot of you don't know each other. But you've come together to express solidarity and to express your sadness."

University president Jamie Cassels said his heart ached for the victims.

"Emma and John were taken far too soon and we are so sorry for that loss," said Cassels, noting that Machado's family was on campus that day.

Mike McArthur/CBC

Cassels encouraged the crowd to seek support if needed.

University staff met with students involved in the crash over the weekend to provide support. The school is offering counsellors, chapel services and quiet spaces.

The university's Inferfaith Chapel also had two therapy dogs on site.

"We try to avoid the actual tragedy itself," said Glenn Driscoll, one of the dog's handlers. "The dogs are great for tummy rubs and hugs and so on. We've provided them with a bit of a loving diversion."

As the gathering unfolded, some students outside stopped at the building's windows to watch. Others rushed to their next class.

Thiessen described the mood on campus as low.

"People are still getting used to it and adjusting," she said. "They're just trying to comprehend it."