HOPE, B.C. — Graham Zillwood has witnessed numerous crashes outside his front window on a notorious stretch of British Columbia’s Coquihalla Highway, but nothing like the chain-reaction crash Sunday night involving 165 people.
The Provincial Health Services Authority said Monday that 29 people were hospitalized with conditions ranging from stable to critical following the crash that involved at least six vehicles.
Zillwood said it started at about 8 p.m. Sunday when he heard the “familiar sound” of a vehicle going off the highway.
“I looked to my left and I could see a whole bunch of other vehicles stopped and I saw the first semi and I thought, ‘Oh no, here we go again.’ So that semi hit a car on the road, knocked it down the embankment and then the semi rolled down the embankment on that car.”
A few seconds later, he said another semi-trailer truck speared the first and then a third truck nudged a Greyhound bus before it hit the second truck involved in the crash.
The Coquihalla River separates his home from the highway, but Zillwood said he had a clear view of what happened from his front window.
“I was on the phone to 911 as all this was happening. I was (doing) play-by-play telling them what was happening kind of thing. I’ve done that before here, unfortunately. This happens more often than it should.”
RCMP Const. Mike Halskov said the collision involved large buses, tractor-trailer trucks and smaller vehicles.
“Winter driving conditions are considered to be a major contributing factor in this collision and driver impairment does not appear to be a factor,” he said in a statement.
Police said numerous emergency agencies responded to the crash.
“Thankfully, there were no fatalities as a result of this collision,” says a statement from RCMP Fraser Valley Traffic Services.
Two Greyhound buses were caught up in the crash, including one that landed in the ditch.
Company spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson said both buses were travelling from Kelowna to Vancouver and were carrying a total of 97 passengers.
“We are aware of five reported injuries, most of which were treated and released,” Gipson said.
Greyhound sent a relief bus to Hope where 136 uninjured people were sheltered overnight at a local high school. Gipson said the Greyhound passengers were later transported to their destinations.
Hope Search and Rescue, numerous area fire departments and dozens of ambulances rushed to the scene to help.
The search group posted photos showing two transport trucks twisted together across the highway, with one cab partially down an embankment while the truck’s rear wheels rested on another mangled vehicle.
Zillwood said he checked the temperature just before the accident while letting out his dog and it was just below zero. Hail had fallen shortly before the crash, he said, but the conditions were nothing like the week before when there was a major snowfall.
He said accidents seem to occur when vehicles can’t get up the hill going south because of the slippery conditions.
“That’s when it happens, traffic backs up to the point where vehicles coming from the north can’t stop in time and the domino effect starts. They start knocking like ping pong balls off the highway.”
He said he has called the Transportation Ministry several times to suggest that a sign board or some other warning system be installed in the area.
“I’ve been here 14 years and I’ve seen it way too many times,” he said. “It’s horrible.”
In Victoria, Transportation Minister Claire Trevena said she sends wishes of sympathy to those involved but she wouldn’t comment further pending the results of the ongoing investigation.
“It’s been a horrible winter on the Coquihalla,” she said. “I think everybody is aware of that. The contractors were in their highest readiness for the storm. They’d been working round the clock on making the highway clear.”
Trevena said she was told the area where the accident occurred had been plowed 20 minutes prior.
The accident forced the closure of the highway in both directions between Hope and Merritt for about seven hours. Traffic was moving in both directions by Monday morning.