The fatal rollover of an all-terrain vehicle used to tour glaciers that killed three visitors and injured the remaining 23 passengers and driver saw an emergency response from across the provincie of Alberta that involved multiple government agencies and service providers.
The specially designed Ice Explorer motor coach rolled down an embankment at the base of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park Saturday (July 18) at 2:09 p.m. according to Pursuit Banff Jasper Collection President Dave McKenna.
"We do not know at this point what the cause of the accident is and it would be inappropriate for me to speculate," McKenna said Sunday (July 19) outside the company's Glacier Discovery Centre. "To that end, we are extending every effort to help the RCMP, occupational health and safety and the Transport Safety Board."
He said everyone is deeply saddened by what has happened and efforts are being made to offer support to those affected.
"The RCMP are actively reaching out to friends and family of those impacted and we are on standby to help support those families in the days and weeks to come," McKenna said.
"Our heartfelt thoughts and deepest sympathies are with those who lost family."
The victims include Dionne Durocher, a 24-year-old woman from Canoe Narrows, Sask., a 28-year-old woman from Edmonton and a 28-year-old male from India, who have not yet been identified. While 14 passengers went to hospital in critical, potentially life-threatening condition, as of Sunday four were still considered to be in critical but in stable condition and one was in serious but stable condition.
Medical resources from across Alberta responded to the incident supported by provincial dispatch centres.
That included 28 ambulances that came from Calgary, Jasper, Nordegg, Banff, Rocky Mountain House, Canmore, Hinton, Edmonton, and Sundre.
The first ambulance arrived on scene at 3:17 p.m. and the last patient was transported to hospital at 8:43 p.m., according to Alberta Health Services.
Due to the difficult terrain at the crash site and lack of road access, some of those injured were triaged and treated before being airlifted to a staging area where ambulances were waiting. Injuries ranged from serious head and pelvic trauma to leg and shoulder fractures.
Aeromedical and Yellowhead Helicopters sent choppers, while Canmore-based Alpine Helicopters Inc. responded with two of its rescue aircraft to the scene.
Alpine rescue pilot Perry Hirsch helped sling many of the patients out of the crash site to nearby EMS units and paramedics for transport.
Before he left Canmore, however, he was able to bring a public safety specialist from Banff National Park, a paramedic, advanced life saving equipment and blood supplies with him.
“Within 20 minutes of getting there we were slinging patients out of the scene – time was of the essence,” Hirsch said. “Anyone who was injured and couldn’t walk away, was flown out of there.
“I was in the air for about an hour-and-a-half slinging people off the scene.”
Of the passengers that were sent to the hospital, four were in serious, but stable condition, six were in stable condition and 14 were in critical, potentially life threatening condition.
Three STARS air ambulances and fixed-wing ambulances from Slave Lake, Lac La Biche and Edmonton responded to help transport patients to hospitals in Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Hinton and Calgary. Hospitals in Edmonton and Calgary were placed on alert for a multiple casualty event.
Nineteen were transported by ambulance or STARS to the Jasper-Hinton airport and then transferred by the fixed wing air ambulances. Five were taken by ground ambulance to Banff Mineral Springs Hospital or Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.
STARS also responded from Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie.
In addition to the crews on board each air ambulance – a flight paramedic and flight nurse – a STARS transport physician and resident responded.
STARS Calgary base medical director Dr. Jamin Mulvey was off-duty at home in Canmore when he found out about the potential mass casualty incident. Mulvey was able to fly into the scene with one of the Alpine Helicopters Inc. pilots.
Mulvey assessed and treated four injured passengers on scene, but was very involved with caring for two. One was taken by STARS to Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary in critical, potentially life-threatening condition.
Alpine transported the second patient with the doctor to Hinton to rendezvous with a fixed-wing air ambulance.
STARS Emergency Link Centre director John Griffiths said in an email that “the severity of injuries and challenge of location was as great as the response which matched it.”
“Usually calls have local assets attending and STARS comes in and out for rapid transport and critical care of the worst patient’s,” Griffiths said.
“For this event, it was literally was the entire healthcare system across Alberta overlapping and supporting.”
Key players across Alberta pulling together to help, he said, including to backfill resources within the provincial first response system with so many dispatchers dedicated to the response and EMS units on scene.
“In addition, the STARS Emergency Link Centre helped connect a STARS transport physician with incident command on scene via phone and then starting to allocate resources to those patients, which then decides whether they go to Edmonton or Calgary, and then calling those sites and speaking with trauma team leaders on call telling them to prep for two-to-three hours ahead for a influx of patients,” Griffiths said.
Hirsch said the Jasper National Park wildfire response team was able to respond and use its incident command structure to help manage the situation. Behind the scene, fuel for the helicopters was brought in and food for first responders.
“It was impressive to see how that incident command centre worked,” he said.
Alpine Helicopters Inc. director of flight operations Todd Cooper said for an event of this scale and nature, it can be challenging to get the resources needed into the scene quickly. He also pointed to the importance of communication between all the different agencies.
“Communication is something that is invaluable,” he said. “With the amount of aircraft you have on the scene at the same time, as well as the different agencies.”
Multiple investigations are ongoing into the rollover. The Jasper RCMP and a collision reconstruction analyst continue to look into the cause, however, the analyst confirmed there was no evidence of a landslide along the roadway where the rollover occurred.
Jasper detachment commander Sgt. Rick Bidaisee said efforts are underway to remove the motor coach from the embankment, but the conditions are difficult and it may take several days. Heavy machinery was being brought into the scene – located at the Columbia Icefields along Highway 93.
“Again, we are in the infancy stage of the investigation and all steps are being taken to determine, together with our partner agencies, the cause of the rollover,” Bidaisee said.
Vice-president of operations Stuart Back said the focus right now is on helping and reaching out to offer support as needed.
“Pursuit has been on site actively supporting the RCMP during their investigation,” Back said. “Our priority at this time remains focused on the family and friends of those impacted by this incident, as well as our team, many of whom were first responders.”
Pursuit has 22 remaining Ice Explorers in its fleet. McKenna said all receive regular maintenance at the company’s workshop in Jasper, which is supported through a contracted heavy duty mechanic in Calgary. He said all drivers have a class 2 licence with an air brake endorsement and receive training on the operations of the Ice Explorers.
“There are no seatbelts on these vehicles – these are off-road vehicles, so they are not for highways,” he said.
“They are not licensed to travel on the road, they are designed for the conditions you see around you [on the glacier] and they are designed
to not go over 40 km/h.”
Pursuit has a licence of occupation from Parks Canada to operate the roadway to the side of the Athabasca Glacier, which flows from the Columbia Icefield, one of two hydrological apexes in North America.
McKenna said daily maintenance and grading is performed on the roadway while the Ice Explorers travel to and from the glacier.
The incident occurred three months after Pursuit reopened, having shut down its operations in March due to COVID-19’s devastating effect on the tourism industry. McKenna said before the coronavirus, the Columbia Icefield Adventure averaged 4,000 visitors a day and this year the busiest day saw 500 people on the tour.
Normally the coaches hold 56 passengers and a driver, but due to COVID-19 the capacity was reduced to 26 passengers.
Tours of the glacier have been taking place since 1969 and visitation has increased over that time. In an average year, there are 480,000 visitors to the glacier and McKenna said the company has transported 16 million passengers in its specially designed all-terrain vehicles since the early 1980s. He said this is the first fatality involving one of its fleet.