A deadly crash on a notorious highway prompts grief - and anger - in Fort McMurray

CALGARY AND OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Shannon Wheaton, a pastor from Fort McMurray, Alta. , centre , his wife Trena Thompson-Wheaton, and youngest son Benjamin, died in a head-on crash north of Edmonton Friday. Oldest son Timothy survived. (Submitted photo)

Days after a head-on collision killed seven people along a notoriously dangerous stretch of highway, the reaction from residents of Fort McMurray, Alta., is a mix of intense grief and anger.

More than 10,000 people have signed petitions and other forms, with many planning to attend a protest this week to demand the provincial government twin, by expanding to four lanes, the northern leg of Highway 63, a 255-kilometre connection that starts north of Edmonton and links the oil sands of northern Alberta to the rest of the province.

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The key corridor for commuter and industrial traffic runs to and from the province’s greatest source of energy wealth, and while residents have long argued it needs attention, frustrations came to a head on the weekend following Friday afternoon’s two-vehicle accident.

The tragedy on Highway 63 happened near Wandering River, about 250 kilometres north of Edmonton. RCMP say a northbound truck with three passengers tried to pass another vehicle, but it collided head-on with a southbound vehicle. That truck is said to have carried six people – the Wheaton and Penney families.

The RCMP said the crash caused a serious fire.

Friends and family mourned the victims at a church service on Sunday. Hundreds gathered at the Family Christian Centre in Fort McMurray to pray and sing. Shannon Wheaton, one of the church’s pastors, died in the crash along with his wife, Trena, and their two-year-old son, Ben. Their eldest son, Timothy, who is around 3, survived and is said to be doing well in Edmonton, where he was taken to hospital.

Their friends, Mark and Courtney Penney, were also in the truck. Mr. Penney survived and is in hospital in Edmonton. Ms. Penney died.

“The service was between sober and relief,” said Darlene Holloway, a long-time friend of the Wheaton family. “It was a sense of relief that Timothy is doing so well so fast.”

An 11-year-old girl was airlifted to hospital, but later died. Information on her and the two other victims in the northbound vehicle has not been released. Constable Christina Wilkins, an RCMP spokesperson for the area, said weather conditions at the time “weren’t favourable,” due to “reduced visibility with blowing snow.”

Fort McMurray residents want Alberta to focus more closely on the $1-billion twinning project. In the fiscal year 2010-11, the Alberta government collected more than $3.7-billion in royalties from oil sands projects.

“Everybody is really frustrated,” said Denise Martineau, who plans to attend a May 5 protest to urge politicians to twin the highway and has known people who have died on the road. “We’ve been promised this for years and years and years.”

Alberta pledged to twin the highway around 2006. So far, only 33 kilometres have been completed, although another 36 kilometres will be finished in 2013. The province has graded another 44 kilometres, readying it for pavement. Trees have been cleared on another 100-kilometre stretch, where design studies and surveying is already complete, said Donna Babchishin, a spokesperson for Alberta’s Department of Transportation.

But the process is a logistical quagmire. The highway extends over long stretches of muskeg, crosses numerous pipelines, and it must jump over rivers, Ms. Babchishin added. Further, engineers must account for the increased traffic on the corridor, as well as the sky-rocketing weights of industrial vehicles.

“That’s why we need to do it right,” she said. “We can’t just slap up a highway.”

Mike Allen, the Progressive Conservative MLA-elect for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, admits he’s aware citizens are angry at the provincial Tories for moving so slowly on the project.

“Right now, there’s a lot of sadness, there’s a lot of anger, there’s a lot of frustration,” the former Fort McMurray deputy mayor said. “It is pent up over a number of deaths that have occurred over a number of years. Everybody would like to have seen it done yesterday.”

Until the Highway 63 project is done, drivers and law-enforcement officers will have to do their part, he said. “Regardless of our frustration, we have to come to grips that it is not going to be completed this year,” Mr. Allen said. “So in the short term, we have to focus on promoting safe driving on Highway 63.”

The highway’s long section south of Fort McMurray to a junction with Highway 55 is a key concern. There were 265 collisions on the 237-kilometre stretch in 2010, the most recent year with available statistics, according to Ms. Babchishin.

Four of those collisions were fatal, and six people died in total. About 40 per cent of the collisions involved animals, she said. There were 1,376 collisions between 2005 and 2010.

The most recent collision rate is below the provincial average for “similar roadways,” Ms. Babchishin said.

With the province moving slowly, oil sands companies are finding their own solutions. Suncor Energy Inc., for example, spent $55-million to build an overpass on Highway 63 connecting two key parts of its operations. The interchange, about 25 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, was then handed over to the province. Energy companies have long bused employees to their sites in an effort to minimize traffic and increase safety.

Helen Hendricks, a local employee of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, said she passed the spot of the recent accident about 20 minutes before it happened in the midst of a light snowstorm.

“It wasn't awful,” Ms. Hendricks said of the conditions. “The road was wet. There was no snow on it. But there would have been a little bit of snow on the shoulders. It melted as soon as it hit the road where the traffic was.”

The tragedy has left a trail of sorrow stretching all the way back to communities in Newfoundland, where Mr. Wheaton and his wife lived and worked before moving to Alberta.

At the Windsor Pentecostal Church in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld., people paused during the 11 a.m. service Sunday to remember their former youth minister.

“Our hearts are pretty heavy,” said senior pastor Robert Parsons, who worked alongside Mr. Wheaton for three years and knew the couple well. “Our church family feels the sorrow of this.”

Mr. Parsons said Mr. Wheaton had a gift for connecting with children and set a great example in his own life. “They were very family-oriented,” he said. “The two of worked together and set an example for families to be in today’s society.”

With a report from James Bradshaw

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