Two 18-year-old University of Victoria students on a first-year field trip to Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre in the fall of 2019 died of blunt force head trauma — caused in part by a lack of seatbelt use — when the bus they were on crashed, says a coroner’s report released Wednesday.
The bus was carrying 45 students and two teaching assistants to Bamfield, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, on a class trip on Sept. 13, 2019, when it crashed on Bamfield Road after steering to avoid an approaching vehicle.
The report says the road, a sometimes-narrow 76-kilometre industrial logging route that connects Port Alberni to Bamfield, was wide enough at the crash site for two vehicles to pass without contact.
Emma Sydney MacIntosh Machado, of Winnipeg, and John Matthew Geerdes, of Iowa City, Iowa, died in the crash. The two students were seated beside one another when the coach bus rolled down an embankment. Several other students were injured.
The chartered Wilson’s Transportation coach bus had been fitted with seatbelts, but their use by students was not enforced by the driver or school staff, the coroner’s report says.
The bus was travelling south on Bamfield Road when it encountered a vehicle traveling north about 9 p.m. and the driver moved right to allow the vehicle to pass. “Moments after steering to the right, the wheels of the bus sunk into the soft shoulder, causing the centre of mass for the bus to roll over, down an embankment,” the report says.
During the rollover, Geerdes and Machado were partially ejected through a window and sustained fatal injuries. Both were extracted “but resuscitation was not provided” as it was apparent both were dead.
A police investigation noted that the area of roadway where the collision occurred “was wide enough to permit both vehicles to pass in opposing directions without contact.” Neither speed nor the condition of the bus was a factor, the coroner’s report says.
In B.C., Motor Vehicle Act regulations require passengers to use seatbelts in all vehicles except those originally manufactured without seatbelts. “The use of seatbelts on coach buses is not consistently regulated across Canada and Transport Canada is currently reviewing the national laws,” the report says.
Machado’s mother, Ethel MacIntosh, a surgeon specializing in oncology, said the coroner’s report is upsetting in that it suggests lack of seatbelt use as the most important factor. While she suspects seatbelt use would have changed the outcome, “it seems to place the blame on the students.”
Several students have told the Times Colonist that when the bus turned over, only about two people were hanging upside down, restrained by their seatbelts.
MacIntosh says Machado was a cautious driver, always wore a seatbelt in any vehicle, and would obey any instruction to do so.
“Obviously, the culture of riding buses is different — and needs to change,” MacIntosh said. “I agree that a responsible adult on that bus should have told the students to do that. There apparently was no responsible adult there.”
MacIntosh said her daughter and Geerdes were killed by “driver error.”
“The report alludes to the fact that the driver should have not pulled closer to the shoulder — and given the road and condition, weather and darkness, clearly the driver misjudged the location of the bus on the road,” she said.
MacIntosh also said the top-heavy coach was the wrong vehicle to have on that road — the centre of gravity allowed the bus to tip and the large windows allowed John and Emma to be ejected, said MacIntosh. “That would not have happened with a regular school bus.”
The fact that prior trips had occurred without incident “does not mean it was safe,” said MacIntosh. “They were just lucky before.”
The University of Victoria commissioned an independent review, released in June 2020, that resulted in 43 recommendations — seven of which were completed in February. The UVic report pointed to contributing factors that included a late departure from Victoria that resulted in the trip being made in the dark, a soft shoulder from recent road grading, lack of seatbelt enforcement and inadequate staffing to enforce university policies and procedures.
The university has said future field-trip travel will take place during daylight hours and staff will enforce protocols including wearing of seatbelts when available. Since the crash, the only other trip to the marine sciences centre used a ferry for the final leg.
Since 1987, the B.C. Coroner Service has recorded six other deaths due to motor vehicle collisions along Bamfield Road.
Huu-ay-aht First Nations Chief Councillor Robert Dennis Sr., who advocated for improvements to the road for years, said the province has signed off on a three-year funding agreement —$25.7 million from the province and $5 million from the Huu-ay-aht — for safety upgrades and hard surfacing of the road.
“Emma and John were in the wrong vehicle, in the wrong place, at the wrong time of day,” MacIntosh said. “While accidents happen, there were so many small things that could have made a difference. We and John’s families continue to struggle daily with the holes left behind in our families.”