A HUGE chunk of ice that fell on a westbound Greyhound bus, damaging its front end and injuring two people, was unprecedented.
Ministry of Transportation’s Don Ramsay said the accident took place at 35 Mile – CN Rail measures its tracks in miles and this spot is 35 miles west from Terrace – about 55 km west of town, past Exchamsiks and past Carwash rock.
“On occasion, there has been ice on the road but the amount that came down on Friday was unprecedented,” he said.
Around 7:30 p.m. Feb. 4, a bus travelling west was struck and damaged on its front end by a huge chunk of ice that fell on it from a rock face along a narrow section of the highway.
The bus driver was injured but the eight passengers on the bus were not hurt.
A short time afterward, a car slammed into the back of the trailer that the bus was pulling. The driver was reportedly injured.
The RCMP shut down the road and called for flaggers and emergency response crews, said Ramsay, adding the road was closed down from around 8 p.m. to about 10 or 10:30 p.m..
Police managed to stop a train that was due to pass by.
Ice on cliffs is regularly shot down by the maintenance contractor with a rifle, said Ramsay.
“This was not ice of that nature,” he said, about the ice that hit the bus.
“This is ice that was probably clinging to the rock on a flat surface of some sort and in all of the memory of people in Highways, no one has ever seen anything like this,” said Ramsay, adding this ice wasn’t the kind that could be shot down.
Maintenance crews went out the next day and put 50 rounds into some ice on the cliffs, and it didn’t make a difference, he added.
The amount of ice that fell on the bus was enough to fill two dump trucks, said Ramsay.
The ministry has no plans to change any of its ice clearing procedures, said Ramsay.
“We have reviewed what happened and our practices are to control the ice to the best of our ability at that location and at other locations where ice tends to build up,” said Ramsay, adding there’s many locations on the highway east and west where ice hangs on rocks.
He added that the ministry put up a warning on DriveBC about watching for falling ice since that is a problem this time of year with the fluctuating temperatures.
As for why the ice fell is anyone’s guess.
“We really don’t know,” he said.
“What makes it even more unusual is the time of day. Normally when ice is going to fall is midday, the heat of the day, and this (accident) happened as temperatures were dropping and it was just below zero.”
A weather station just west of the accident location indicated it was dry with no measurable precipitation, he said.
Many areas on the highways in Alberta have snow sheds that go over the highway so an avalanche will stay off the highway when it comes down, but this isn’t something that would be done here.
“That location is also an avalanche area. This ice should not be confused with snow avalanches. The ministry has been looking to address the issues of the narrow road width as well as the avalanche potential but we don’t have a solution at this point in time, short of moving the mountain,” said Ramsay.
Another problem ice area, which was first reported to be the location of the bus accident, is Carwash Rock, which has been worked on in the past decade to make it safer.
“We actually have made two projects at Carwash over the last 10 years,” said Ramsay.
The road was widened to create a greater clear zone underneath the rock, he said.
“We actually carved about a metre into the rock, maybe a little bit more than a metre. You can actually see the scarring and drilling of the blasting to do that when you go by there,” he said. adding that widening the road gives vehicles another couple of degrees of freedom to move over if necessary.
East of the city, at Chindemash, there are vertical rock walls that collect ice and are watched by the ministry.
“We tend to not have the challenges we do at 35 Mile,” he said, adding that’s likely because the Chindemash rock face is on the north side so it doesn’t get the warning and cooling effect that the southern facing rock wall at 35 Mile does.
“It was an unfortunate accident. I think everyone responded very well,” said Ramsay about the damage to the bus.
Lewis McLeod, who was about the third vehicle to come upon the accident, was on his way back here from Prince Rupert.
“At the time I came along, the roads were still good but it was cooling off,” he said.
The ice came off the side of the cliff, he said, adding it’s a very narrow section of highway and the bus driver had nowhere to go to avoid it.
The bus didn’t go into the ditch but did end up in the eastbound lane, he said.
Passengers on the bus had to get out of the vehicle through the front window as the door by the stairs had been crushed down to only a couple inches wide, he said.
The Jaws of Life were used to open up the stairs on the bus, he added.
Someone on the bus told him that they saw the ice falling and couldn’t do anything about it, said McLeod.
At that location on the highway, there were signs on the road noting that motorists should slow to 60 km/h and watch for falling debris, he said.
It was not raining or snowing at the time but it was warm and he did notice water coming down the cliff, he said.