Bus tragedy still painful

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

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on April 17, 2009
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, 1980 bus crash. Lake was one of four men from the small Burin Peninsula community killed in the crash. Dodge is shown here with a wedding photo taken in 1977. Photo at left by The Canadian Press/Calgary Herald/Ken Read, at left, photo by Terry Roberts/The Telegram

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.

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