A well-coordinated response of community organizations leapt into action on Saturday, Nov. 5, sheltering dozens of stranded travellers, including a hockey team, when winter weather conditions led to multiple vehicle collisions just north of Ponoka.
Nearly a dozen community entities worked together into the night to transport travellers and provide them shelter until the scene involving over 50 vehicles was cleared and the road could be re-opened.
The Town of Ponoka, including the director of Emergency Management, the chief administrative officer, the mayor and members of council, worked with community partners to set up a reception area.
Stranded drivers and passengers with vehicles involved in, or incapacitated by, the collision north of Ponoka, were bused to a reception area at the Calnash Ag Event Centre in Ponoka.
“The town works closely together with its community partners to respond to emergencies when required, such as in this case, under the Ponoka Regional Emergency Plan and the Town of Ponoka Emergency Management Plan,” said town communications manager Sandra Smith.
“It was a great community effort,” said Donna Noble, Ponoka County protective services coordinator.
The town’s CAO Sandra Lund was the first person Noble called after receiving a call from Cpl. Mike Dillon of the Ponoka RCMP detachment.
Her second call, quickly after that, was to Shannon Boyce-Campbell, executive director at Ponoka Family and Community Support Services (FCSS).
That afternoon, Alberta RCMP advised of poor driving conditions between Leduc and Airdrie, reporting multiple collisions on Highway 2 near Olds and Ponoka.
The northbound lane on Highway 2 near Menaik Road was closed for several hours.
The Ponoka County Regional Fire Services East District, EMS, Ponoka RCMP and sheriffs and peace officers as well as town staff responded to the site, said Ponoka RCMP acting detachment commander Sgt. Erin St-Cyr.
There were approximately 57 vechicles involved, including semis and a coach bus, although more reports of damaged vehicles may still come in, said St-Cyr.
According to St-Cyr, although there were numerous minor injuries, none were serious.
“Given how unforgiving Highway 2 can be with winter road conditions that’s certainly something to be thankful for,” she said.
The Ponoka County Regional Fire Services East District was onsite responding to collisions from about 1:30 to almost 7 p.m.
There was an excess of 10 collisions, one involving 17 vehicles alone, according to Noble.
The northbound lane reopened to regular traffic at about 2 a.m.
Three school bus loads of people with police escorts were transported to the reception area.
“The buses started rolling in and we were ready with accommodation, food and smiles,” stated a post on Ponoka FCSS’ Facebook page Nov. 6.
The Pony Express was also opened and fed soup, sandwiches and coffee to those stranded.
A total of 77 people registered at the reception area. Many were either able stay the night with a friend, get picked up, or were reunited with their vehicle if it was still drivable.
The RCMP coordinated reuniting people with their vehicles that were still drivable, either bringing them to the centre, or driving people out to their vehicles on the highway.
Of the 77 registered people, nine stayed the night at the Calnash, with the last person leaving at 9 a.m. Sunday morning, said Noble.
Among the people stranded were the Sherwood Park Junior A Crusaders hockey team. The team, 28 people including coaches and the players, were put up for the night in a gymnasium at the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury.
The team stayed at the centre until road conditions improved and a replacement bus was able to return them home to Sherwood Park.
“The Sherwood Park Crusaders would like to thank all the first responders who took care of the team this evening and the hospitality from the community of Ponoka,” stated a post on their website.
The reception area was manned throughout the night by Noble, and FCSS executive director Shannon Boyce-Campbell. An RCMP officer was also onsite until about 2 or 3 a.m. to help keep people apprised of the situation, said Noble.
The feedback received was very positive, with one person even saying they’d made a new friend from the event, said Noble.
Those stranded were from various communities. Three people from Rocky Mountain House were driven to Red Deer to catch a bus home.
Ponoka Mayor Kevin Ferguson even provided a ride to someone to Wetaskiwin in the morning.
The community partners involved in the emergency response included: Ponoka County; Emergency Services; Ponoka FCSS; Ponoka Victim Services; the Calnash Ag Event Centre; the Centennial Centre; the Ponoka Mat Program which provided mats and blankets for people to sleep on at the Ag Event Centre; about 20 community volunteers who helped out that evening, along with many other residents and businesses that stopped by throughout the evening to offer their help; The Pony Express; area tow truck drivers; and Wolf Creek School Division bus drivers.
“It was a coordinated effort and it worked very, very well,” said Noble. “Kudos to all the volunteers who came out to help us as well.”
”The first responders were amazing and we heard many comments of how much they are valued and how their communication to the stranded was so very well done,” said FCSS in the post.
The town expressed their appreciation for all of the community partners who came together to help the stranded travellers.
“Ponoka is a caring community and it really showed in our response to this emergency situation over the weekend.”