Bus Tragedy in Quebec

In Liboire Lefebvre’s four years as mayor, St-Bernard-de-Beauce has enjoyed small triumphs. Local residents have racked up honors in provincial flower competitions.

Bus Tragedy in Quebec

In Liboire Lefebvre's four years as mayor, St-Bernard-de-Beauce has enjoyed small triumphs. Local residents have racked up honors in provincial flower competitions. Three years ago, the small town just south of Quebec City marked its 150th anniversary with a year-long celebration that culminated in a parade down its main street. The anniversary, and the town's past, have been immortalized for local residents in a hard-cover souvenir book. But last week, a devastating new chapter in St-Bernard's history began after 43 people - all but one a St-Bernard resident - died when a sightseeing bus plunged down a ravine on Oct. 13 during a Thanksgiving outing. "Imagine you're responsible for a town of 2,100 people," said a weary-looking Lefebvre at the municipal hall last week. "And two per cent of them are gone." Outside, television satellite trucks dwarfed the statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in front of the 19th-century Catholic church, in preparation for last Thursday's memorial service. "We've never seen anything like this in St-Bernard," Lefebvre said.

Or faced such a tragedy. The deaths have left a gaping hole in the social fabric of the tightly knit community. The victims, most of them senior citizens, died when their chartered bus failed to negotiate a dangerous curve on Highway 362 and fell down a 20-m ravine near St-Joseph-de-la-Rive, 140 km east of St-Bernard. Last week, walking down the sleepy street where he has lived for 20 years, Ovide Labrecque, 76, tried to comprehend the extent of the tragedy. "We all knew each other," he said of the victims. Labrecque, who lost two brothers and seven cousins in the crash (a third brother and his wife remained in serious but stable condition in a Quebec City hospital last week, along with three other survivors), pointed to a now-deserted grey stone house, owned by one of his dead cousins. "He was always there in the morning," he said. "I keep thinking he's there."

Others also struggled to come to terms with the terrible truth. Labrecque's neighbor Harmel St-Onge, his eyes filling with tears, recounted how he went bowling every week with some of the victims. "The team doesn't exist anymore," said the 65-year-old St-Onge. What does remain are questions surrounding the worst bus accident in Canadian history. The police investigation, which will take several weeks, is considering both mechanical faults and human error as contributing causes. At week's end, police announced that they had found some technical irregularities in the bus, but refused to draw any conclusions.

Some witnesses reported seeing smoke coming from the wheels of the bus, which crashed through a guardrail when it reached the sharp curve at the bottom of the steep hill. "It was terrible," said André Castonguay, who saw the bus hurtle down the ravine from his living room window in St-Joseph-de-la-Rive. "It was more or less an open cemetery." Castonguay, a school bus driver who navigates Highway 362 daily, knows its dangers - as do other local residents. In 1974, 13 seniors died in a similar crash at almost the same spot. In the wake of the second crash, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard has called a public inquiry, and promised that "everything possible will be done" to make the highway safe.

In St-Bernard, the victims will be sorely missed. Although most were retired, they were among the town's most active citizens. Many were energetic volunteers, organizing activities such as card games, singing in the church choir and helping out other, more infirm seniors. "They were the guiding lights," parish priest Marc-André Lachance told a packed crowd at the memorial, attended by both Bouchard and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. Some wonder who will fill the gap. "The replacement ranks will be thin," said Aliette Lacasse, 52, as she raked leaves around the church before the service. Others, however, are optimistic about the town's recovery. Bank manager Louis Fournier believes that a strong sense of solidarity will help the community cope with the crisis. Sitting in his office at the caisse populaire across from the church, Fournier maintained "it will be easier to get through this because of team spirit."

St-Bernard residents will, however, have some help. With the distraction of funeral arrangements over, the hardest part of the mourning now begins, notes Marc Tanguay, head of the regional health clinic. The clinic has sent in social workers and psychologists to work with the families of the victims, and will also help the community establish a new volunteer network. Lefebvre and others, meanwhile, are confident the town will rebound. "Things have to continue on," the mayor said softly. But for all their record of proud self-reliance, learning to live with last week's loss may prove the toughest challenge ever for the people of St-Bernard.

Maclean's October 27, 1997