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Families, friends set to remember victims on anniversary of Manitoba bus crash

Loved ones look on as photos of  individuals who died in a June 15 highway crash near Carberry are displayed during a press conference in Dauphin, Man., on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (The Canadian Press/The Brandon Sun - Tim Smith) Loved ones look on as photos of individuals who died in a June 15 highway crash near Carberry are displayed during a press conference in Dauphin, Man., on Thursday, June 22, 2023. (The Canadian Press/The Brandon Sun - Tim Smith)
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The year that has passed since a bus crash killed 17 seniors headed to a Manitoba casino on a bright late-spring day has been one of grief, community support, a slow return to normal and, for some, a long road to recovery.

It has also left unanswered questions about the genesis of the horrific crash that left the bus in flames, debris strewn in all directions and first responders dealing with a chaotic scene of death of injury.

The site of the deadly crash on the Trans-Canada Highway where it intersects with Highway 5, west of Winnipeg near Carberry, Man., pictured on Friday, June 16, 2023. (Source: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Dauphin, a city of 8,000 residents in western Manitoba, is a place where almost everyone knows everyone. Most know someone who was killed or injured in the crash or someone related to a victim.

On Saturday, the anniversary of the crash, residents are to unveil a monument to the lives lost.

"June 15 will be forever embedded in the minds of most of our community," Dauphin Mayor David Bosiak said in an interview.

"It's like Sept. 11. People remember what they were doing that day."

Don Stokotelny is among those connected to the tragedy.

His mother, Josephine Stokotelny, 86, was severely injured in the crash and has spent the last year recovering. She suffered brain damage, uses a walker to get around and is in assisted living.

He also knows the bus driver. He had hired the driver on previous occasions for small group outings and considers the man a caring person.

Stokotelny said he has chosen forgiveness over anger.

"We used his services to cart Mom around and some of her friends to other events, so he took care of these people like they were his own," Stokotelny said.

"If he's at fault, then he just made a mistake. And we accept that and we have no interest in looking at that any further."

The bus, with 25 people on board, left Dauphin and was headed to a casino near Carberry, a two-hour drive south. It was on Highway 5 and nearing its destination when it came to a busy stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway.

The bus first came across a stop sign, then a yield sign in the median, before it started to cross the eastbound lanes of the highway and was hit by a semi-trailer.

RCMP said dashcam video show the truck had the right of way. The crash caused the bus to burst into flames and end up in a ditch.

Josephine Stokotelny was thrown clear of the bus and taken to hospital in critical condition. Her son recalled seeing her severely injured, unable to breathe on her own.

"She was literally broken from head to toe," he said.

"She had 17 different devices hooked up to her — tubes, breathing devices, etc. There was a long time there where we weren't sure if she was at all going to pull through."

Emergency crews rushed to the scene — ground ambulances and police, then a STARS helicopter. Survivors were taken to hospital in Brandon, and many were airlifted to the province's major trauma centre in Winnipeg. STARS brought in reinforcements from Saskatchewan.

"It was a devastating scene, according to our crew. Everywhere they looked, there was trauma," said Grant Therrien with STARS, who was part of the team treating and transferring patients from Brandon.

There were funerals in the days that followed. Some who initially survived were taken to hospital but later died. The 17th fatality was 79-year-old Catherine Day, who died a month after the crash.

The driver of the bus was severely injured. RCMP said they have been unable to talk to him, and health officials have not released details of his condition due to provincial privacy laws.

Mounties submitted a report on the crash to Manitoba's Crown attorney office, which has yet to decide whether to lay charges.

In Dauphin, the tragedy continues to be felt. For some, family get-togethers and holiday gatherings are a reminder that a loved one can't be there.

"As time went on, the community got back to 'normal.' However, for the 16 or 17 families that were impacted directly ... there was a tremendous amount of change for them," Bosiak said.

The ceremony on the anniversary would be a chance for families to again support each other and "see how everybody's doing," Stokotelny said.

"The City of Dauphin and all the people around (have been) offering their best wishes and condolences ... it's been incredible for sure."

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