'It still knocks you down:' First responders reflect on Humboldt Broncos crash
Brian Starkell, Chief of the Nipawin Fire department in Nipawin, Saskatchewan poses for a photo in Niagara Falls, Ont. on Sunday March 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tara Walton
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, April 1, 2019 6:00AM EDT
When Brian Starkell drives a particular stretch of highway in Saskatchewan, his stomach drops as he approaches the intersection that changed so many lives.
The Tisdale fire chief says he still has flashbacks to the 911 call that came in just after 5 p.m. last April 6. A semi-trailer and a bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team had collided at the crossroads of Highways 35 and 335.
“It doesn't matter how strong a person can be. It still knocks you down a bit,” Starkell says, choking back tears.
“We are blessed. We go home at night. We go back to our families, where those folks can't.”
Nearly every first responder in the area rushed to the site that night. Many say the horrific scene has stayed with them.
The bus was flipped on its side. Its front end was completely missing and its roof torn off. Hockey bags were strewn among the wreckage, along with bales of peat moss the truck had been hauling.
And there were the dead and injured.
Fourteen people on the bus died at the scene. Two later died in hospital. Thirteen others were injured, including two players who were left paralyzed.
“We did our job up there. But, of course, it's still the families that suffered the most. And I don't think we will ever get over that,” Starkell says.
Tisdale's fire hall is about 25 kilometres from the crash site. Firefighters drive by the intersection on a regular basis while working or taking their own kids to sports games, the chief says. They often stop and take a moment at a makeshift memorial of crosses set up on the corner.
First responders were given support in the weeks and months after the collision. Starkell says a few firefighters took time off to deal with what happened. One still has not returned.
RCMP also provided mental-health services to officers throughout a lengthy investigation and the subsequent court case against the truck driver. Jaskirat Singh Sidhu of Calgary was recently sentenced to eight years for dangerous driving. Court heard he blew through a stop sign at the intersection directly into the path of the hockey bus.
“The collision, our first response, the investigation, and the court proceedings have all had an impact on those who had a role in the RCMP's response to this tragedy,” RCMP spokesman Cpl. Rob King said in an email.
“This includes not only our front-line officers who responded to the scene, but the many others who supported them and their efforts.
“It touched every corner of our country and left an impression well outside Canadian borders.”
Some paramedics also took time off but have all returned to work, said Jessica Brost, general manager of North East EMS. She wishes others had also been able to take a break.
“You kind of almost wish you could pause the EMS life for awhile and have things really slow down, but of course summer kicked in and things got really busy.”
Over the last year, some paramedics have opened their doors to community members who were at the scene to help each other shoulder the memories and the grief. Brost said it's important to be able to talk with someone who understands what it was like on the road that evening.
“They know the actual feeling - the sight and the sound and just how overwhelming that whole situation was,” she said, holding back tears. “It's indescribable, even though many of us have been in EMS for a long time.”
Brost has stayed in contact with the player she helped that night, and his family, and has watched his health slowly improve.
She doesn't take life for granted anymore.
“Take the happy times and just really stop and enjoy it. Stop and smell the roses,” she said. “It sounds so cliche, but it put a different spin on my life.”