HUMBOLDT, Sask. — Investigators are still trying to piece together what happened when a tractor-trailer collided with a hockey team bus at a Saskatchewan highway intersection in a horrific crash that killed 15 people, including players and the coach of the Humboldt Broncos.
The crash killed the junior hockey team’s head coach, Darcy Haugan, captain Logan Schatz, forwards Jaxon Joseph and Logan Hunter, defenceman Stephen Wack and the team’s play-by-play radio announcer, Tyler Bieber.
RCMP Asst. Commissioner Curtis Zablocki said the driver of the semi was not hurt and was briefly detained after the crash early Friday evening.
“The driver has subsequently been released. He’s also been provided with some mental health and wellness assistance,” Zablocki said Saturday afternoon.
Police say the 14 who survived the crash have varying degrees of injury, some critical. The names of the dead and injured have not been released, but some have been confirmed by family members and others.
The players come from various towns and cities in Alberta and Saskatchewan while one, Matthieu Gomercic, hails from Winnipeg.
“We are heartbroken and completely devastated by the tragedy that occurred yesterday,” Broncos team president Kevin Garinger said Saturday. “We will never forgot the members of our Broncos family who were taken from us and who were injured.”
The family of Ryan Straschnitzki confirmed the 18-year-old player survived but broke his back and can’t feel his lower extremities.
Kelly Schatz said his 20-year-old son Logan played for the Broncos for just over four years and had served as team captain for the past 2 1/2.
He said the family is seeking solace in one another.
“It’s hard,” Schatz said. “I’ve got four other kids and they’re here, which is nice.”
Haugan’s wife, Christina George-Haugan, confirmed the coach’s death to The Canadian Press. Tributes poured in online for the father of two young sons, who was described as an amazing mentor to players.
“He will always be a great man in our hearts,” his sister posted on Twitter under the name Debbie Jayne. “The tears just keep coming.”
Steven Wilson, a play-by-play announcer in Weyburn, Sask., called Haugan “the classiest guy” in the league.
Alicia Wack said her 21-year-old cousin, who made the best gingerbread houses and “absolutely lived and breathed hockey,” had played defence with the Broncos for two seasons.
“I am horrified to say that he did not make it,” she said in a Facebook post. “Stephen has always been an amazing person, son, big brother and cousin. He is one of the most adventurous, ambitious and loving people that I have ever been blessed to know.
“My heart is destroyed.”
Kevin Porter, the president of the St. Albert Raiders hockey club, told The Canadian Press that 18-year-old Hunter, a forward, was also killed in the crash. Hunter was from St. Albert and played with the Raiders organization for four seasons.
Hunter “always had a smile on his face,” said Porter, who heard of the death from the young man’s mother. “Smart kid. Great hockey player. Great sense of humour.”
Police say 29 people were on the bus of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team as it travelled north on the highway heading to Nipawin for a playoff game.
Around 5 p.m. Friday, the truck was heading west at a highway intersection south of Nipawin when it collided with the bus. The force of the crash sent both vehicles into the ditch at the northwest corner of the intersection.
Aerial footage showed the bus on its side, its roof peeled back and its front end destroyed.
The trailer of the truck lay nearby in a shattered mess, with bags of its peat moss cargo scattered all around. The tractor part of the truck was intact, lying on its passenger side.
The tractor-trailer would have had to yield to a stop sign before crossing over the highway that the hockey bus was travelling on. There is a stand of trees on the southeast corner of the intersection, limiting visibility of the approach on both roads.
Zablocki said a lot of issues have to be investigated, including weather conditions at the time and any mechanical issues with the vehicles.
“Due to the large amount of evidence, information, and the number of victims this work will take some time,” said Zablocki. “It’s too early to comment on the cause of the collision.”
The victims were dispatched by helicopter and ambulance to care centres in nearby Saskatoon.
Hassan Masri, an emergency room doctor at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital, said a code orange emergency was called signalling massive casualties.
“The images and the injuries that I saw yesterday, really that’s what they reminded me of, when there was an airstrike and a massive number of people would be coming in at the same time in horrible shape,” said Masri, who has done work in war-torn Syria.
Masri said it was emotional given Saskatchewan communities are knit together by hockey.
“A lot of people have kids that play on hockey teams that travel from town to town,” he said. “This was either personal because you knew someone or personal because you could really relate to it.”
In Humboldt, the team’s home rink became a scene of mourning, support, and strength.
Humboldt Mayor Rob Muench, wearing a green and yellow team Broncos jersey, hugged people Saturday morning as they came to the Elger Petersen Arena to comfort each other.
“It has hit us hard. We are a small community by most standards, but the hockey team has always been a big part of our community,” said Muench.
Many people wandered in and out of the arena during the day. Multiple crisis workers were assisting in a separate area.
Flowers were placed on the stairs in the rink stands. The railings were wrapped in yellow and green ribbon to honour the team.
The tragedy brought messages of condolence from around the country, the hockey world and the highest levels of government, including U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said Canada is in mourning.
“We are heartbroken knowing many of those we lost had their entire lives in front of them,” Trudeau said in a statement Saturday. “We grieve with those facing news no parent or family should ever have to face.
“This is every parent’s worst nightmare. No one should ever have to see their child leave to play the sport they love and never come back.”
As of early Sunday morning, a crowdfunding effort on the website GoFundMe had raised more than $2.9 million for the players and families affected by the crash.
The crash has cruel echoes of 1986, when the Swift Current Broncos team bus slid off an icy highway and crashed in late December, killing four players.
The Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League is a Junior ‘A’ hockey league under Hockey Canada, which is part of the Canadian Junior Hockey League.
Ryan McKenna and Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press