Mother Nature puts on a sunny face this fall day, the rural countryside wearing brilliant gold, and the heavens a sweet glorious blue.
But she belies the terrible tragedy that befell Bonita and Roger Bott hours before on Tuesday night, which, despite the efforts of many, took the lives of all three of their young daughters — the twins, Dara and Jana, 11, and their eldest, Catie, who had just turned 13.
The couple and their youngest child, nine-year-old son Caleb, lost the girls in a farming accident that occurred in the early evening on their Withrow farm, located about seven kilometres from Leslieville.
On Wednesday morning, the rural community that surrounds the Botts — a well-known farm family whose heritage goes back to the pioneer days — began to put their arms around them, and hold them tight in the way they know well, through church and faith.
At Withrow Gospel Mission, just down the road from the Botts, family, friends and congregation turned up Wednesday to pray, to hug each other closely, and to cry. A female RCMP officer was there too, talking quietly with folk as they all shared the grief.
A convoy of combines had already headed out early Wednesday — driving along the same road where two STARS air ambulances had landed about 12 hours earlier — to finish the harvest the Botts had so suddenly, so sadly, been diverted from.
The details of how the Bott children came to be in the back of a farm truck loaded with canola seed remain unclear.
Withrow Gospel Mission Pastor Brian Allan, a close friend of the Botts who also belong to the congregation, said that Roger Bott was very conscientious about farm safety with his children.
Rocky Mountain House RCMP, who are not officially identifying the family, said that at 6:15 p.m. on Tuesday they were called to a complaint of a medical emergency at a family-owned farm near Withrow, about 15 kms east of Rocky.
The girls — two 11-year-olds and one 13-year-old — were playing on a loaded truck of canola when they became buried and smothered by the seed in the truck.
The children were pulled out of the seed by adults on scene and emergency medical personnel were called. Life-saving measures were attempted at length by personnel from Condor, Leslieville and Clearwater County Fire Departments, as well as the Eckville and Rocky Mountain Ambulance and members of the Rocky RCMP.
Jana and Catie died at the farm. Dara was transported to the Stollery Children’s Hospital via STARS in critical condition but passed away there at 3:18 a.m. Wednesday.
Rocky RCMP Sgt. Mike Numan read a statement from the Bott family during a press conference outside the detachment on Wednesday morning, but not before asking for a moment to compose himself.
The family’s statement: “Our kids died living life on the farm, it is a family farm. We do not regret raising and involving our kids Catie, age 13, Dara, age 11, and Jana, age 11 on our farm. It was our life! Thank you for all of the overwhelming support we have received from the first responders, neighbours and friends. We would ask the media to respect our privacy at this time of grief.”
Numan also expressed the RCMP’s deepest condolences to the family and local community. “This is hitting all of us very hard,” he said.
“Frontline responders are routinely called out to sad situations, but things are always harder for everyone when kids are involved.”
The Rocky Mountain House Victims Service Unit is assisting the family.
Later, at Withrow Gospel Mission, Pastor Allan kindly spoke about the Botts, who are leaders in the church.
As the tragedy unfolded, Roger Bott called Allan to come to their farm. The pastor arrived to find the children on the ground beside the truck.
“When I got there Bonita was definitely involved with helping the children.” Some of the first responders who attended had just arrived and STARS was on the way.
After STARS left with Dara, Roger and Bonita left to meet her at the Edmonton hospital, Allan said.
Allan spoke with the couple after they came home early Wednesday morning. “They are amazingly well but still obviously shaken deeply. You know this whole grief thing is quite a process.”
“I know for a fact that they have a very strong faith … Roger and Bonita talked about it last night, and they spoke to the emergency people that were there and that’s what can help people through a very deep, deep, devastating time, is knowing that those girls are with the Saviour. They’re with the Lord. They’re in Heaven today … whereas we are torn to pieces. We’re busted up. It’s very hard. And so we have to walk through the painful side of that,” Allan said.
“My wife and I … developed a very strong and long relationship with them. So when this happens it’s like your own family. It is your own family.”
“As far as support for them, the church is here. If you were to be here, you’ll find that there is just a lot of people phoning and talking and asking what they can do to help.”
Allen said the Botts’ children attended Condor School in the past but they also home schooled their children. At the same time they are still quite connected to the school community. The Botts have a large extended family in the area.
Allan said a trust account at the Eckville credit union has been set up, the Roger and Bonita Family Trust Account. “Obviously there’s going to be costs.”
“We opened the (church) doors at 10:30 (a.m.) and people have been coming in all morning,” Allan said.
“We’ve dealt with loss. You’re in a community for 26 years you’ve see different types of loss. … It’s such a combination of things. It’s a dear friend plus it’s someone from your congregation and community so that brings a little extra element to it. But to say that I’ve faced anything like this before, I can’t say that I have.”
He said he doesn’t fully understand what happened during the incident. “I don’t know that I can go there because I really don’t know.”
A woman who works the Alhambra Corner gas station on Hwy 11 said the Botts are frequent customers there.
Brenda, who didn’t want to give her last name, said the community was feeling “absolute devastation.” Her own 13-year-old daughter was a friend of Catie Bott and had attended school with her.
Brad Volkman, superintendent of schools for Wildrose School Division said the Botts are well known and even though their children no longer attended Condor School, they continued to support it during events like Christmas concerts.
A crisis management team from the school district was sent to the school on Wednesday to support students and staff.
“Our thoughts and our prayers go out to the family and the community,” Volkman said.
Pastor Allen said that the Botts told him they needed some time and space before looking at funeral arrangements.
He said farming wasn’t really work for the Botts. “It was the joy of their lives. They were doing what they loved to do. The kids loved it.”