Toddlers Die in Van Crash

It was the dull drone of the van's horn that first alerted Josée Desilets to the horrific accident across the road from her small business selling windows. Her husband, Réjean Lambert, rushed out of their store in tiny St-Jean-Baptiste-de-Nicolet, Que.

Toddlers Die in Van Crash

It was the dull drone of the van's horn that first alerted Josée Desilets to the horrific accident across the road from her small business selling windows. Her husband, Réjean Lambert, rushed out of their store in tiny St-Jean-Baptiste-de-Nicolet, Que., to find children's bodies strewn about in the snow-covered field. "I wasn't able to go close," recalled Desilets. "I was watching from here and my legs were shaking." The children, a policeman said later, were lying there "like little angels."

Only minutes earlier, the children had left for an outing to a sugar shack. At the wheel of the minivan was Jeanne Auger, the owner of a local day care in the village about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. But as she drove up an incline on the rural road, Auger skidded, perhaps on ice, into the oncoming lane hitting another van. Her vehicle crashed through a guardrail and the impact threw eight children from the van and took a horrendous toll on a small community and a province all too familiar with roadside carnage.

Seven children were killed - four girls and three boys between the ages of 2 and 5. Four died on impact. At week's end, a four-year-old boy was clinging to life in a hospital in nearby Trois-Rivières. Auger and two others survived; one of the dead was her five-year-old son, Samuel. The driver of the other van, Wayne Kroeker, 49, says it happened so quickly he didn't have time to avoid the collision. "I saw the woman at the last second," said an emotional Kroeker, in hospital himself. "I didn't see any children, that's why it was a shock to see children everywhere in the field."

Among the horrific images of the crash, one promises to linger: police found only a single car seat, the only one in the van. That immediately raised questions about whether all the children were safely buckled up. And why, residents wondered, were 10 children in the Ford Windstar van, which contains only seven seat-belts? Quebec's highway safety law is clear: vehicles cannot carry more passengers than there are seat-belts, and kids under 5 have to be in child seats or boosters. Day-care regulations also restrict a single caregiver to look after no more than six children over the age of 2.

The accident left people reeling in the small agricultural community of 3,000. "It's horrible," said Sylvie Allard who has two small children. "I can tell you that we hugged them very tight yesterday." As word spread, some frightened parents frantically wondered which of the two local day cares was involved. Mayor Marcel Tremblay heard about the accident during a meeting in Quebec City with government officials and thought immediately of his own three-year-old daughter. He recalled "10 to 15 minutes of incredible anguish" before learning it wasn't his daughter's day care that was involved.

Terrible road accidents have become an all-too-familiar tragedy in Quebec in recent years. On Thanksgiving Day in 1997, 44 people - all but one of them from the town of St-Bernard-de-Beauce - died when their bus veered off the road and plunged down a ravine. Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard immediately ordered an inquiry into Thursday's accident. A provincial coroner is to begin an investigation and counselling services were arranged for the victims' families. But asked what people were telling him, Tremblay replied simply: "People aren't talking. The only thing they are doing is crying."

Maclean's March 27, 2000