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Through Their Eyes: The day everything changed for the Humboldt Broncos

It's been one year since the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, the worst tragedy in the history of Canadian sports, which claimed the lives of 16 people. On the evening of April 6, 2018, parents, friends and team administrators learned of the crash. These are their stories.

The events of April 6, 2018 will forever be burned into the consciousness of those of us who love the game. The Humboldt Broncos bus crash that killed 16 people and irrevocably changed the lives of 13 others was a seminal moment in the hockey world. On the anniversary of the tragedy, we look at it through the eyes of some of the people who were most intimately involved.

Just off his shift with the Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, former NHL defenseman Chris Joseph was preparing dinner and looking forward to watching Game 5 of the series on his computer. He had travelled to Game 4 to watch the Broncos lose in triple overtime two nights before, but his hopes were high. That was when he got a phone call from Gary Peck, an RCMP officer whose son, Curtis, played in Kindersley. Peck’s son had heard from some of his friends in Nipawin that the Broncos’ bus had been involved in a crash. Peck also called Alan Wack, whose son, Stephen, was also on the bus.

“I tried to text (Jaxon) six times and there was no answer,” Joseph said. “We waited about an hour and then my wife (Andrea) looked at me and said, ‘What are we doing here? We need to go.’ ”

So they jumped into their car and drove east, with Chris talking on his cell phone constantly. One of the calls was from assistant coach Chris Beaudry, who was not on the bus, to tell him it was very serious. Another hour passed and Beaudry called to say that Jaxon had been airlifted to Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon with serious head trauma.

In a tragic, tragic turn of circumstances, that player turned out to be Joseph’s teammate, Morgan Gobeil. Then he got a call from the father of Jaxon’s girlfriend, who went to the hospital to see him. He told Joseph that Jaxon’s girlfriend was “pretty confident” that it was not him in the hospital. Chris and his wife drove for another hour before arriving at the hospital and Chris went to check. He said he honestly couldn’t tell whether or not it was his son in the bed, but now says that was probably case of him, “looking through the eyes of hope.”

He went into the room with his daughter and neither could make a positive identification. “There were parts of me that said, ‘No, this is not his facial hair, this is not his haircut,’ ” Chris said. “But there were parts of me that had a lot of hope. ‘Those are his shoulders, these are his fingers, these are his hairy legs.’ My daughter and I looked at Morgan and she looked at me and said, ‘Dad, this is Jaxon.’ And I said, ‘Taylor, I want to say it is, too, but I’m not sure.’ ”

Joseph went to talk with three Broncos players – Derek Patter, Nick Shumlanski and Grayson Cameron – who were being treated for their injuries. He had a blue shirt that had been given to him that was on the boy who had been admitted to hospital. “They all unanimously said, ‘That’s Morgan’s shirt. And that was the point where I knew, because I had done all the math.”

Joseph knew that everyone who was going to be coming to the hospital was already there and that was when Joseph realized his son had never left the scene of the accident. “And that meant he was gone. I had to tell them all that he wasn’t coming to the hospital and he was left behind.”

That was 4 a.m. and they went to a local hotel. Joseph was told three hours later that all the bodies would be at the morgue by noon. “They had Jaxon displayed nicely,” Joseph said. “The moment I walked into the room I could tell from across the room it was Jaxon and I felt really silly that I thought the day before that Morgan might have been Jaxon. I thought, ‘How could you mistake these two? It’s not even close.’ ”

• • •

The man who ultimately became the face of the Broncos throughout the tragedy was actually in a hospital in Edmonton when he received his first call from one of the team’s board members. He was spending time with his nephew, who was dealing with a life-threatening matter.

At this point reports of the bus accident were only conjecture and rumor. At this point, Garinger is thinking the bus slid off the road and there might be some broken bones. He tried to call coach Darcy Haugen’s cell phone and some of the players, but he couldn’t get through to any of them, which didn’t alarm him. “Darcy would have told everybody, ‘Put your phones away,’ because it was the playoffs,” Garinger said. “You’re not thinking the worst right away, but there’s an anxiety there.”

Garinger’s next call was to the president of the Nipawin Hawks, who told him there was a very serious accident. “He said it was 'bad, real bad,' ” Garinger said. “Those were his exact words and I’ll never forget them. I asked him if there were deaths and he said, ‘Yeah, there were deaths.’ ”

• • •

The parents of the Broncos athletic therapist were at their home in Marysburg, Sask., when they received a text message from one of Carol’s co-workers, a Broncos billet parent who were driving to Nipawin for the game. Details were sketchy and it took a while to realize how serious the accident was. Carol thought there was no sense in calling her daughter because she would have been tending to the players who were hurt.

“I thought, ‘If she’s able to help somebody, she’ll be mad at me for taking her time away from who she’s helping,’ ” Carol Brons said. They started to make their way to Nipawin and found out that their daughter was in the hospital in nearby Tisdale. She was later transferred to the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon. “It was then that we got carried into the vortex of the storm,” Carol said. It was there that they spent the next five days while Dayna fought. It was clear she would have to be removed from life support and she died surrounded by her family. “We were thankful we had some time with her,” Carol said. “The families that didn’t have that time, I feel for them.”

 NIPAWIN ARENA The Humboldt Broncos were travelling to Game 5 of their third-round series against the Nipawin Hawks.(Kymber Rae/AFP/Getty Images)

NIPAWIN ARENA The Humboldt Broncos were travelling to Game 5 of their third-round series against the Nipawin Hawks.(Kymber Rae/AFP/Getty Images)

• • •

In the middle of his early Friday evening workout, MacLean got a call from Broncos board member Rob Eichorst, who said he would be at the gym right away. MacLean thought that was odd, since he and his wife were set to go out for steak dinners with Eichorst and his wife after the workout. He walks over to me in the gym and he says, ‘There’s been an accident.’ ” MacLean said. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s Saskatchewan in the spring. I’m sure the bus just hit some ice and a kid broke his leg. That sucks.’ Then he said, ‘Early reports are as many as 19 were killed.’ ”

That was when MacLean sprung into action, setting up a meeting room at the board of education office where he is the deputy director of education. For the next four days, MacLean helped manage the crisis. “I don’t think I ate for four days,” he said. “I lived on Timbits and water and the odd slice of pizza. It was like the world stopped for five days, seven days. That gym I was in, it took me four months before I was able to go back.”

MacLean believes that the way everyone in Humboldt responded to the tragedy proved that this little community of 6,000 was amply prepared to take the responsibility of dealing with a disaster on such a grand scale. “People have said at different times, ‘It’s not what you signed up for,' ” MacLean said. “Actually, it’s exactly what you signed up for. You get involved, you volunteer and you take on a leadership role, it’s not just for the good stuff. Anybody can work through the easy times.”

• • •

Kurt and Celeste decided to drive themselves to the game instead of taking the fan bus and, in fact, passed the accident without even knowing their son’s team bus was involved. Emergency personnel were already on the scene. “We just thought it was a semi,” Kurt told in the days after the accident. “We didn’t notice the bus in behind the semi. So we just kind of thought, ‘Let’s keep going, get our tickets, get a bite to eat.’ ”

As they made their way to the game, they received a phone call telling them the Broncos bus had been involved and were told to go to Nipawin. Kurt decided to go back to the accident scene. He saw the condition of the bus and was thankful there were any survivors. But as time went on and he didn’t hear about the condition of his son, the grim reality began to sink in.

“We were getting some word about which kids were going where, but Jacob’s name wasn’t coming up,” Kurt said. “By the time we left the site, I knew. I knew already. I just knew.” The first thing Kurt did was call the father of coach Darcy Haugan, whose parents moved to Humboldt from Alberta to be closer to their son and grandchildren after Darcy got the Broncos job. “I told him, ‘It doesn’t look good,’ ” Kurt said. “I told him, ‘I think we both lost our sons tonight.’ ”

Kurt and Celeste went on to Nipawin to get more information about their son and his teammates and that’s when it became official. “We’re getting news out of the hospital, you know, who’s where, what’s going on, and your son’s name is not coming up,” Kurt said. “I got to give the Dahlgrens good news, which was positive. I walked over to Mark (Dahlgren, father of Broncos player Kaleb) and said, ‘Your son is in the hospital.’ But the rest of us sat there and waited for the RCMP. We kind of just said, ‘Give us some news so we can get home to our families.’ And the RCMP came and took us all aside and basically they had a list and said, ‘If your son’s not marked in a hospital here, I’m sorry. There are fatalities.’ ”

• • •

Kennedy’s eight-week-old son had just spit up on her and after she went to change clothes, she took a look at her Facebook page and her feed was full of reports about the accident. The reports were grim from the start, so Kennedy immediately picked up two of her social workers and headed to City Hall. Within minutes, they decided the crisis center would be set up at the Elgar Petersen Arena. “We realized pretty quickly that the scope of this accident was indescribable,” Kennedy said, “and that the community was going to need a safe place to come together, to receive accurate information.”

By the time Kennedy and her team of six social workers arrived at the arena, there were already people arriving and looking for information and solace. Over the next three days they handled hundreds of people at the arena and another 500 on a crisis line they had set up on one of their iPhones.

In reality, those who responded to the accident in Humboldt could probably write a manual for dealing with mass tragedies like this one. The hope is it would never, ever have to be put into use, but it would help if it ever did.

“As we look back, there is no real manual on how to do this or how to do it right,” Kennedy said. “But we really did our best and we did it with the best of intentions. We know we didn’t do everything right and we know what missteps we made along the way. I hope I never, ever, ever experience anything of this magnitude ever again.”

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