Kalwinder Singh was supposed to meet up with his cousin, Karanjot Singh Sodhi, for a family celebration to ring in the new year.
Instead, Singh will be picking up the remains of his relative who died in a bus crash on an icy stretch of British Columbia highway on Christmas Eve.
Singh, a truck driver, said the Okanagan Connector between Merritt and Kelowna on which his cousin died is the worst he’s ever driven in North America, while others who travelled the route with the same bus company days before the deadly incident described harrowing conditions.
That journey, too, resulted in a crash.
Forty-one-year-old Sodhi, who was a new arrival to Canada and was from Punjab, India, leaves behind a wife and two children, a six-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, in his home city of Amritsar.
“It’s very very, very horrible,” Singh said in an interview. “It’s really horrible.”
Police suspect icy roads were the cause of the Ebus crash that left four people dead and dozens of others injured east of Merritt near the Loon Lake exit. Officials have not released the names of those who died.
The cousins were on an hour-long video call that Singh believes ended about 30 minutes before the crash. They laughed and joked, discussing Sodhi’s upcoming visit to Surrey, and the party they were to have.
Around 10 p.m., when Sodhi didn’t reach Surrey, Singh said his wife began to worry. Sodhi wasn’t answering his phone either.
Singh began calling the police.
About an hour later the family got word of a bus crash on the route their cousin was travelling and that some people had died.
Singh said that’s when he began calling hospitals in the area to check if his cousin was among the dead.
On Christmas Day, he said the police called him to say his cousin was one of the victims.
“(Sodhi’s) wife is in a very bad shape after hearing the news. His mother too.”
Singh, a long-haul truck driver, said the stretch near the site of the crash along the Okanagan Connector, also known as Highway 97C, is treacherous.
“The B.C. government don’t clean the roads,” he said. “It’s so slippery. If you go to Hope to Kamloops and Kamloops to Golden B.C., to Highway 1 to Calgary — the worst highways I’ve ever seen in the U.S. or Canada.”
The stretch between Kamloops and Golden, B.C., which is about 300 kilometres long usually takes six hours in the summer while it takes about twice that in winter, Singh said.
“I saw so many accidents in just the last two weeks.”
Gord Vizzutti and his wife, Patricia Rockwell, were on the Okanagan Connector in an Ebus after leaving Kelowna around 7 a.m. Dec. 20. The Kelowna man described a harrowing trip where near-whiteout conditions blanketed the steep and icy highway.
“Within minutes we felt the bus slip, slide a bit and my wife commented that we almost hit a guardrail,” he said.
His wife texted their son in Vancouver saying she was not comfortable in the bus. About 45 minutes later he said the driver nearly rear-ended a pickup and swerved sharply, missing it by centimentres.
“There was an audible gasp from those in the bus. The driver turned around and he said, ‘is everyone OK?’ And my wife Patricia responded, ‘well, we’d be better if you could just slow down a little bit.’”
About 20 minutes after that the bus clipped a semi-trailer truck.
Vizzutti said his wife suffered a gashed forehead, glass in her eyes and mouth, bruises and a concussion.
They were travelling to Vancouver where they planned a brief stopover before heading to Arizona to celebrate Christmas in the sunshine with family.
“But of course that didn’t happen.”
He and his wife had resolved to chalk up their bus crash and ruined Christmas to experience and just deal with their wounds, he said.
“I was happy to remain in that state until on Christmas morning, I woke up to read the news of this horrific bus crash by the same bus company on the same stretch of road. One that of course had produced significantly far worse effects, and our hearts were just torn apart.”
His message to the Ebus drivers, Vizzutti said, is to “slow down.”
“I would say for heaven’s sake, just pull over and wait for conditions to improve or if conditions are that bad, and you’re aware of it at the outset, just simply don’t,” he said. “Don’t leave, stay put.”
Alberta-based bus company Ebus paused all its bus routes in B.C. on Boxing Day “due to deteriorating weather conditions,“ according to a statement posted on social media.
The routes resumed Tuesday.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While he is fine physically, Vizzutti said “mentally, it’s a whole different story.” He says he won’t be taking a bus any time soon.
He cannot imagine the mental health of those on the bus that crashed Christmas Eve, killing fellow passenger, he said.
“A life-altering event for so many people. That’s for certain.”
Among them are Sodhi’s loved ones. Singh said Sodhi’s father died when he was 13, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister.
“Now his children are without a father.”
— By Hina Alam in Fredericton, with files by Ashley Joannou in Vancouver
The Canadian Press