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‘It’s still surreal’: Authorities look for cause of deadly Alberta glacier bus crash

The Columbia Icefield is one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world

Angela Bye couldn’t believe her eyes Saturday when she used the telephoto lens of her camera to get a closer look at what appeared to be an overturned vehicle on the Columbia Icefield, one of the country’s prime tourist spots.

Three people were killed and 14 others suffered life-threatening injuries when a glacier bus carrying tourists to a glacier, rolled over.

Bye, who’s from Calgary, and her husband had taken the icefield tour earlier in the day. When her husband said it looked like another bus had turned over she had a closer look.

“I took my camera and zoomed as far as it could go and I’m like yeah, it is wheels up. I could see even more stuff and realized they were still getting people out and I was shocked at that point to realize this has just happened,” Bye said.

“You could definitely see people were crouched over the windows, helping people out. There were a couple of people in helmets. I was able to see there were a couple of people laying on the ground but as I said, not everybody must have been out.”

Bye said when they left they ran into several emergency vehicles on the way. She said watching it from a distance is still playing on her mind.

“It’s still surreal for all of us. We’re probably all still in shock as to what happened and that’s why it hasn’t hit that it could have been us.”

Police worked to remove the upturned vehicle throughout the day Sunday.

A lone RCMP truck with its lights flashing guarded the entrance to the road where the vehicle appeared to have rolled about 50 metres down a steep embankment for as yet unknown reasons. Authorities were still trying to work out how to move the coach.

“That’s going to be part and parcel is the logistics to have that vehicle removed from the site itself,” RCMP Cpl. Leigh Drinkwater said.

READ MORE: Glacier sightseeing bus rolls in the Alberta Rockies killing 3 and injuring others

One person could be seen on top of the “Ice Explorer,” which remained on its roof. Three semi-trailer trucks, two with flatbeds, were at the entrance.

The iconic red and white vehicles, which look like buses with monster-truck tires, regularly leave from a visitor centre and take tourists up a rough road onto the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park.

In all, 27 people were aboard when it crashed. Air ambulances from across the province ferried the injured from the picturesque but remote location.

Alberta Heath Services said 24 patients were taken to hospitals in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Calgary and Banff, 14 of them with life-threatening injuries. AHS said five others were in serious condition while the remaining five were listed as stable.

AHS said hospitals in both Edmonton and Calgary were put on “Code Orange” alert so they would be prepared for the high number of patients with critical and serious injuries.

There was no further word Sunday on the conditions or identities of those involved. Police did say the three people killed were adults. They also confirmed no further fatalities.

In a tweet Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his condolences.

“To those who lost a loved one in yesterday’s bus crash at the Columbia Icefields, know that we are here for you and are keeping you in our thoughts,” Trudeau said. “We also wish a full recovery to those who were injured. And to the first responders, thank you for your quick action and hard work.”

In a statement on Sunday, the company that runs the tours expressed sympathy for the victims and their families. Dave McKenna, president of Pursuit, also thanked first responders.

“The RCMP and Occupational Health and Safety are on site and actively investigating,” McKenna said in a statement. “An update will be provided following the investigation.”

The company reopened the icefield tours about a month ago with 50 per cent capacity after being closed due to COVID-19. The tour has guests drive onto the Athabasca Glacier, where they can walk on the glacier and fill their water bottles with the pure, cold runoff.

The vehicle was on its way to the glacier when it crashed.

Rob Kanty, who was on an earlier bus and witnessed the incident, said he believed a rockslide might have played a role.

“We watched the event unfold from the parking lot,” Kanty said in an email. “We could see the dust and rocks still sliding down the mountain towards the tour bus already rolled over on its roof.”

The Columbia Icefield is one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. It is located about 100 kilometres south of Jasper and accessed from Highway 93 North, the Icefields Parkway. The parkway leads from Jasper down to Lake Louise through Banff and Jasper national parks and is one of Canada’s most scenic drives.

Parth Bala drove 27 hours from Scarborough to the Canadian Rockies and had planned to take the tour Sunday. He said the trip had been planned over the past 10 years and it’s a disappointment.

Bala said he’d happily ride it in the future.

“Lightning doesn’t strike the same spot twice in a row so we’re going to see how the professionals assess the situation and when it’s safe to do so we will assess at that point.”

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

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