BERTHIERVILLE, Que. – Cries for help punctured a windswept stretch of road in rural Quebec on Wednesday as survivors from a deadly crash between a school bus and a minivan struggled to free themselves from the wreckage.
The collision left four people dead and several others badly injured, although the students and the bus driver suffered only minor injuries.
Police believe the minivan swerved into oncoming traffic before slamming into the bus near the town of Berthierville, about 80 kilometres northeast of Montreal.
The impact was strong enough to tear the engine hood clear from the bus, while the front end of the van was turned into little more than a compressed mass of metal.
As residents and other motorists rushed to help, they came upon a grisly scene.
The driver of the van lay inert, sandwiched between the wheel and the seat; the front-seat passenger had been ejected part-way through the windshield.
“Someone in the back was yelling ‘Help me, help me, I can’t feel my arms,” said Alain Charlebois, who was driving along Highway 158 when he witnessed the crash.
Several students were taken off the bus through the back door and into waiting ambulances.
All 13 passengers on the bus, along with its driver, were taken to a local hospital, where they were treated for a range of minor injuries, including shock.
Education officials sent counsellors to help the students, who are between 12 and 16 years old, deal with the trauma.
Three passengers in the van were taken to a trauma centre in Montreal.
Authorities did not release the identities of the deceased, but said they were all males who were returning home after their night shift at a chicken-plucking factory.
The four killed were believed to be aged 32, 30, 28 et 22. Three of them died on impact, or shortly after. The fourth died while receiving emergency care in Montreal.
Police say the minivan appeared to have enough seating for its passengers. An investigation will determine whether they were wearing seatbelts.
But the real priority for Quebec provincial police investigators will be to determine why the minivan left its lane in the first place.
“It’s too early to speculate on the cause of the accident,” said Quebec provincial police Sgt. Benoit Richard.
“Right now the main hypothesis we’re working on is that it’s not criminal; it was an accident.”
Investigators spent the better part of the day gathering evidence at the scene, before reopening the highway.
A deflated airbag could be seen inside the van while an empty lunch box ejected from the vehicle littered the street nearby.
The collision occurred just outside a popular diner, along a road locals say has seen a spate of deadly accidents in recent years.
“We were eating breakfast and all we heard was a loud bang,” said Carole DuPont, who lives across the street from the accident scene.
“There is a lot speeding on this road.”
A local resident who has worked in factories such as the chicken-plucking facility described long hours and difficult conditions.
“A lot of dust gets in your eyes,” said the man, who declined to give his name.
“You can’t get it out until you take a shower.”