By JOSH ALDRICH
Red Deer’s Cote family went from a decade-long nightmare to a tragic horror story last week.
Eric Cote, 46, and his wife, Ghislane Moreault, were driving their youngest daughter Marilou to Calgary for a scoliosis appointment on the morning of March 6 in white-out conditions on Hwy 2 when a passing vehicle reportedly clipped a semi just ahead of them. The 18-wheeler then slammed into their van.
After that, everything is a blur for Ghislane.
“I don’t want to remember that day,” she said, choking back tears. “The only thing I remember is the trailer . . . in front of us, then nothing. I wake up and I saw Eric beside me.”
Eric died on the side of the highway, in the arms of Red Deer businessman Craig Howes, who was one of the first people on scene.
Ghislane and Marilou had a few bumps and bruises but physically were OK.
Emotionally, they may never get over the scene.
“I have some bruises everywhere, but it doesn’t compare,” she said touching her heart, “I have a lot of ache inside.”
Howes, who had served in the army, said he has seen more than his share of crisis situations, but nothing compared to the scene he came upon. There had been two pile-ups on Hwy 2 between Didsbury and Carstairs. After making sure everything was OK at the first one, he drove down the highway to the scene of the second pile-up and found people already attending to the Cotes in their van. He took control of the situation.
He found Eric struggling to hold onto life. He assured him that his family was safe and let him know it was OK to “let go.”
“Very shortly after you could see any effort to hold on left,’” said Howes, the co-founder of Go Tire.
Didsbury’s Lisa Kloberdanz, 38, had just dropped her own children off on her way to a dental appointment and watched the entire scene take place just feet in front of her. She herself avoided serious injury by driving between two semis involved in the collision. When it appeared safe, she got out of her vehicle and went to see if there was anyone in need of help. Immediately she heard the screams of Marilou: “My daddy’s dead! My daddy’s dead!”
She ran to where the voices were coming from, dodging vehicles as they continued to slam into each other and pile up.
Howes told Kloberdanz to call an ambulance and then instructed her to try to calm Marilou and Ghislane, who by that time were sitting in a nearby truck to keep warm.
“I remember (Ghislane) sitting beside her daughter, and the whole time she just stared at me, all she did was stare at me with these eyes like ‘Please help me, please help me.’ She just continued to stare,” said Kloberdanz.
“I felt so bad and it was so hard to say ‘Yeah, everything’s OK, you’re daddy’s fine and things are good.’ It was just so heart wrenching . . . I just remember her staring at me.”
The gravity of the situation hit Kloberdanz, a single mom with three kids under the age of six, later that night as she was serving dessert.
“I just started crying and I remember thinking I was allowed to come get my kids today, I was allowed to come pick them up,” she said.
Didsbury RCMP, which is investigating the fatality, said the investigation is still underway. Airdrie Integrated Traffic Unit is investigating the large, multi-car pile up.
“With these collisions that involve multiple vehicles, they are quite complex investigations that ultimately require the collision analyst to provide the final determination of what led to what,” said Sgt. Jeff Jacobson of the Didsbury detachment, allowing that weather conditions certainly did play a role.
The Cotes came west from Cacouna, Que. — about two hours north of Quebec City on the St. Lawrence River — like so many in search of work and a better life. After a couple of years in Vancouver, they settled in Red Deer where Eric’s sister already lived, 10 years ago.
Both of their daughters — Patricia, 11 and Marilou, 8 — were born in Western Canada.
They loved camping, the outdoors, fishing, biking, going for walks. Aside from the frigid winters, Central Alberta was perfect for them.
“Eric was a good guy, a very good worker, he loved what he did and was a very good dad for the girls,” said Ghislane.
Their first year in Red Deer, however, is when the world seemingly started to turn against them.
Eric was injured in a construction accident, keeping him out of work for a year. The day he returned to work as a foreman, he was T-boned by a vehicle that ran a stop sign. He was seriously injured again.
However, a dispute between insurance and the Alberta Worker’s Compensation Board left them with little money coming in.
Eric had been unable to work since.
Finally, last summer, they lost their house and were forced to live in a tent trailer in a campground.
Marilou and Patricia were OK with this — they had lots of friends to play with — but it was very difficult for Eric and Ghislane.
They survived off of low-income assistance and were finally placed in low-income housing in the fall.
Ghislane and the two girls have a hereditary disease called neurofibromatosis Type 1, where benign tumours form in the skin and throughout the body, including the eyes, brain, spine, in muscles and over nerves. It can cause learning disabilities and other physical ailments like scoliosis. There is no cure.
Eric’s death is the latest and the biggest blow the family has experienced. Now being able to stay in their townhouse is in question.
Moving forward is going to be the biggest challenge.
“I just try to take it day by day,” said Ghislane.
Eric’s brother, Michel Cote, 55, lives in Stony Plain. He has done his best to be by their side since. Ghislane has also relied heavily on her close circle of friends.
“(When I heard about the accident,) I was in lots of pain, because that’s my brother, but then I concerned myself with my brother’s family, his wife and girls, that’s the only thing that’s keeping us going right now, we don’t want to think about anything else,” said Michel.
The community has already started to rally.
Howes has gone to a number of his friends — many of whom are businessmen in Red Deer and Calgary — and started a fundraising effort for the family, set up to help ease at least some of the financial burden.
“(The situation) made me upset, because somebody has to do something, I’m not much for talking about stuff, I’d just rather take part and help,” he said. “No family should have to endure that. … Luck looks down on us all differently and in that case it was looking the other way.
“In the wake of it all, you do realize you’re just human, and there is a lesson in that to give back and be helpful.”
The key for Howes is to make it a long-term effort, with medical bills and related expenses (hotels, gas, parking and meals) that Ghislane and the girls will have for the rest of their lives. They will need the assistance for years to come.
“I want to thank all Albertans, they’re great people,“ said Michel. “They’ve got a very big heart. We appreciate any help.”
“It’s amazing,” Ghislane said. “I want to thank the people who’ve helped me, they want the best for me and the girls.”
An account has been set up for the Cote family at the Alberta Treasury Branch. The account number is 712-00265716300. Tell the bank the donation is for the Eric Cote family.
Howes is also working on an online platform through youcaring.com in order to help make the process easier.
A private service for Eric Cote is planned for next week.