With a loud bang of twisting metal, Dion Lefebvre saw the latest tragedy along the narrow, notorious highway to Alberta’s oil sands unfold.
Two pickup trucks – one passing Mr. Lefebvre’s northbound cube van, one heading south – hit head-on at full speed along the two-lane road. Their front ends were crushed, with one truck spinning around and each coming to a rest upright, side by side, facing north just off the road, all as Mr. Lefebvre watched from his rearview mirror.
“It was about as horrendous a scene as you can imagine,” Mr. Lefebvre recalled of the crash last Friday along Alberta’s Highway 63. “I could feel the impact inside the cab of my truck.”
He pulled over as other traffic raced by. The cries of three-year-old Timothy Wheaton rang out through the air as Mr. Lefebvre, co-worker Eli Day and other bystanders rushed to the crash scene. They used fire extinguishers, to no avail, as flames quickly engulfed one of the trucks.
“As soon as I heard Timmy crying, I just darted in,” said Mr. Lefebvre, 36, a father of three. “I don’t remember how I got into the truck.”
The boy, an 11-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man identified as Mark Penney were pulled from the vehicles. Mr. Lefebvre then grabbed blue moving blankets from his van to wrap around the injured.
Timothy cried loudly. Mr. Penney was alert, and asking about his pregnant wife, Courtney, who had been in the vehicle, Mr. Lefebvre said. “I knew she was dead at the time,” he recalled. “But I didn’t say that, obviously.”
And then, they waited.
It took 55 minutes for the nearest firefighters – a volunteer crew from Plamondon, roughly 100 kilometres away – to arrive. Land and air ambulances followed. “It was absolutely excruciating, the wait we had,” Mr. Lefebvre said.
Among the seven dead were Ms. Penney; Timothy’s brother, two-year-old Benjamin; and their parents, Fort McMurray pastor Shannon Wheaton and his wife, Trena Thompson-Wheaton. All were in one truck.
Another two, who died in the burning Dodge truck, haven’t yet been formally identified. The 11-year-old pulled from the same truck later died of her injuries.
“We’ve been at some pretty nasty [crashes]” Plamondon Fire Chief Hal Pressling said. “But nothing quite as bad as this.”
The RCMP say Mr. Penney remains in hospital, while young Timothy – with little more than scratches on him – has returned to Newfoundland with his grandparents.
“Timothy’s doing wonderful,” said his grandfather, Ronald Thompson, saying the boy has been told his parents are gone. “It’s going to take him a little while to adjust to the full realization of what has happened.”
Mr. Lefebvre – who owns a moving company and calls himself a “self-proclaimed energy healer” – said he’s amazed by Timothy’s survival. “I tell ya, that’s a miracle right there,” he said. He went home and checked the car seat of his own 17-month-old child.
Debate has since swirled around delays in twinning the highway, where both traffic levels and collisions have soared as the oil sands have boomed.
The twinning is expected to take years, delayed by weather, wonky muskeg terrain, clearing of the boreal forest and caribou migration patterns. “We need to act faster on that,” Premier Alison Redford said.
But the crash also raises the issue of the highway’s bare-bones emergency services – mostly volunteer fire departments. One in Wandering River, near the crash site, shut down two years ago, with volunteers overworked and fed up.
Chief Pressling said the highway’s crash rate wouldn’t justify full-time staff. “I don’t know. That’s a pipedream,” he said.
But the province pledged 13 months ago to hire four full-time first responders to work the corridor; it hasn’t yet done so, saying it’s reviewing a consultant’s report.
“We are very discouraged,” said David Yurdiga, reeve of the local Athabasca County, which includes Wandering River and pitched in money to hire the staff. “Every minute counts,” he said.
A Wandering River crew would have cut response time last week in half. Given the fiery crash, however, first responders doubt whether that would have saved a life. “[But]there’s other cases where, yes, it would have,” said Maureen Hagan, who was among the volunteers in Wandering River.
That’s not on the mind, however, of young Timothy’s grandfather, who is planning a funeral for his daughter, son-in-law and other grandson in Newfoundland this weekend.
“I don’t know all the details of the accident,” Mr. Thompson said. “Just grief. This is the reality of life and death, I guess. No anger. Not much point in that.”