Bus tragedy still painful

Terry Roberts
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1980 Saskatchewan highway crash that killed 12 from this province has been all but forgotten - except by those directly affected

It's been nearly three decades, but Mike Lake of Rushoon still has flashbacks and nightmares about the fiery crash on a stretch of highway in Saskatchewan that nearly took his life.

He hasn't worked in many years, is divorced, and feels the crash hampered his ability to lead a productive life.

Photo at left, wreckage is seen strewn about the crash site of an accident involving a car, bus and tanker truck that claimed 22 lives near Swift Current, Sask. on May 28, 1980. At right, Nora Dodge of Rushoon lost her husband, Calvin Lake, in the May 28,

It's been nearly three decades, but Mike Lake of Rushoon still has flashbacks and nightmares about the fiery crash on a stretch of highway in Saskatchewan that nearly took his life.

He hasn't worked in many years, is divorced, and feels the crash hampered his ability to lead a productive life.

"Even the sight of a school bus gives me the shivers," Lake said this week.

He was badly injured and was unconscious for 2 1/2 days, but was one of the lucky ones. Only eight of the 30 people on the bus he was travelling on - all members of a Canadian Pacific Railway "steel gang" - survived the fiery three-vehicle collision on the Trans-Canada Highway near the small community of Webb, about 30 kilometres west of Swift Current.

Of the 22 fatalities, 12 were from this province, mostly from the Burin Peninsula, where scores of men would leave each year for seasonal work on the railway lines in Western Canada.

Four of the dead - brothers Calvin and James Lake (no relation to Mike Lake) and Michael Whiffen and Michael Cheeseman - were from Rushoon, which has a population of roughly 300.

Three men from the town, Angus Moores, Gerald Synard and Lake, survived.

"They got me the job," Mike Lake said of brothers Calvin and James Lake.

Lake was later told he was pulled from the bus by another Rushoon resident, George Stewart.

Stewart, who now lives in Toronto, was travelling in another bus, and is said to have risked his own life in order to save his friends and co-workers.

Stewart rarely talks about the grisly scene, his wife said when contacted last week, and would not give an interview.

The deadly incident occurred on May 28, 1980, and remains one of the worst bus crashes in Canadian history.

But apart from those directly affected, it seems to have faded from memory, perhaps overshadowed by the Ocean Ranger disaster, which claimed the lives of 84 crew when it sank on the Grand Banks nearly two years later.

"It has been forgotten because it did not happen in Newfoundland," said Nora Dodge of Rushoon, who lost her husband, Calvin Lake, in the crash.

The two were married for just 2 1/2 years, and had a 10-month-old daughter, Paula, at the time. Nora has since remarried and her daughter is a nurse.

"She never got to know her dad, but everyone says she's identical to her father," Nora said.

Most of the victims were in their late teens or early 20s. Nine of the dead were from Manitoba, and one was from Ontario. A memorial has been placed near the site of the crash.

According to news coverage from that period, some of the charred bodies could only be identified by tattoos, clothing and physique.

Lake recalls sitting near the rear of the bus, and seeing a dark car coming in the opposite direction. The car crashed into the bus, causing it to flip on its side. It was then ripped apart when hit from behind by a tanker truck carrying liquid asphalt.

The truck driver and two occupants of the car survived the resulting mayhem.

It took hours for emergency workers to control the blaze, with some witnesses saying "there were bodies all over the place."

Lake can't remember much about the crash.

Remembers the screaming

"I remember hearing people screaming," he said, crediting the heroics of George Stewart for freeing him from the burning bus.

"I don't remember nothing about that," he said.

Lake sustained head and neck injuries.

There was so much confusion over victims' identities that Lake's family was initially informed that he was among the dead.

Nora Dodge was playing bingo in nearby Marystown when word began to spread that there had been a bad accident. She received the dreadful news many hours later that her husband and brother-in-law were dead.

She remembers the funeral had to be held in the parish centre because the church wasn't big enough.

"There were four closed caskets. It was a hard blow for a town this size," she said.

Rushoon resident Jim Whiffen later wrote a song about the accident. He lost his best friends, and wanted a way to remember them.

"It's one of the worst things that's ever happened to our community," said Whiffen, who worked on the rails for about five years in the early years of his career. He said men from the community still leave for eight to 10 months each year, plying their trade on the rail lines.

While some of those involved never fully recovered emotionally from the disaster, others viewed it as a wake-up call and made changes in their lives.

Fred Pearson, a native of Petite Forte on the Burin Peninsula, was part of a separate steel gang at the time. He arrived at the crash site a short time later and remembers the pungent smell of burning asphalt and seeing the charred landscape.

He quit the job a few weeks later and decided to go to university. He now teaches science and information technology at Elwood High in Deer Lake.

"Safety didn't really seem to be a concern with the company," he said. "I was young and didn't really care, until some of your friends are killed."

troberts@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Canadian Pacific Railway, Trans-Canada Highway

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, James Lake, Swift Current Western Canada Toronto Newfoundland Manitoba Ontario Marystown Deer Lake

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Recent comments

  • Pierre
    December 14, 2013 - 15:06

    I was supposed to be on that bus but worked on another team that day. After the workday we were traveling back to the siding where we lived. There were three buses. I rode in the first one that left and sat in the rear. I watched the second bus pass us but thought nothing of it as the drive back to the siding was a long one. A while later we slowed down and stopped.There was a long lineup of cars in front of us and couldn't really see what was happening up ahead so I continued to play on my harmonica till someone mentioned that there was an accident and it was our bus. We immediately ran to the site and helped as much as we could. My heart goes out to those who lost family and loved ones and those that survived. I know I am posting this very late but I still remember the men I worked with as thirty years doesn't seem that long ago.

  • Peter Hoag
    August 16, 2013 - 12:11

    Mike Beach was my best friend, room mate for 2 years at University. He got me the job there for 3 summers. If I had not moved to T.O. I would have been with him at the front of the bus that day. Yes all were so young.

  • Cathy
    March 17, 2013 - 12:55

    One of the young men was my boyfriend. I read that Jim Whiffen wrote a song about the accident. Does anyone know where I can listen to it? My heart goes out to everyone that lost a loved one. It was such a devasting event in so many people's lives. I am glad to have found this site. Thank you.

    • Wanetta
      May 28, 2013 - 08:25

      I have it on my facebook I could send in a private message to you

  • Louise Everest
    October 09, 2012 - 07:48

    A friend and I just stopped and read a monument to these workers. It is situated at the side of Highway #1 west of Swift Current. 7 Oct 2012

  • Anna
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    I remember that sad time quiet well.
    Calvin and James Lake of Rushoon are my nephews-- My sister.s children

    Michael Cheeseman is a cousin .
    My family attended the massive funeral.

    God Bless all the families involved

    Anna

    • deb
      April 13, 2012 - 16:58

      I remember how my brother Rene worked for a long time with all those souls. He was to have been on the same bus, but his girlfriend at the time, rushed out to pick him up the night before the bus left with the crew. She came from Mb the night before, picked him up and then my brother heard the terrible new. He was devastated, having loved and known all the people on that crew. We are grateful to have him and as his little sister, I still recall this horrible and sad crash. My brother had a nervous breakdown and moved away. He is okay now, but I will always remember this and continue to pray for them and their families.

  • Norbert
    July 02, 2010 - 13:21

    I grew up in Rushoon. I knew all of them. They were all fine men. Micheal Cheeseman was my first cousin. It was a sad day in that little community with four caskets side by side.

  • mAUDE
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    We also had a family member die in this disaster, my brother in law, michael whiffen from rushoon, and just to let all family members know this accident has never been forgotten in webb, sask, as just a month ago we travelled to webb, and seen the most beautiful memorial ( built by the residents of webb, sask which was unvieled for the 27th annniv of this accident just two yrs ago) this community is determined to keep the memory of your loved ones alive, i also have pics of the memorial if anyone wants to see them, mwhiffen@telus.net

  • Anna
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    I remember that sad time quiet well.
    Calvin and James Lake of Rushoon are my nephews-- My sister.s children

    Michael Cheeseman is a cousin .
    My family attended the massive funeral.

    God Bless all the families involved

    Anna

  • Norbert
    July 01, 2010 - 20:04

    I grew up in Rushoon. I knew all of them. They were all fine men. Micheal Cheeseman was my first cousin. It was a sad day in that little community with four caskets side by side.

  • mAUDE
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    We also had a family member die in this disaster, my brother in law, michael whiffen from rushoon, and just to let all family members know this accident has never been forgotten in webb, sask, as just a month ago we travelled to webb, and seen the most beautiful memorial ( built by the residents of webb, sask which was unvieled for the 27th annniv of this accident just two yrs ago) this community is determined to keep the memory of your loved ones alive, i also have pics of the memorial if anyone wants to see them, mwhiffen@telus.net