Fatal highway closure may have been shorter with more resources 

Council looks for more answers on the highway delays isolating resort

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO - After the accident The lineup on the Sea to Sky Highway following the fatal crash that killed two women in November.
  • File photo
  • After the accident The lineup on the Sea to Sky Highway following the fatal crash that killed two women in November.

November's fatal highway accident, which left two young women dead and closed the Sea to Sky highway for 10 hours, could have been cleaned up faster had more forensic resources been called in that day.

It's not clear just how much of a time difference more resources could have made in this case; that's something RCMP Superintendent Denis Bouchar, in charge of traffic services throughout B.C., will be looking into in light of pressure from Whistler council asking questions on the extensive delay.

"Could we have saved an hour here?" queried Bouchar aloud at Tuesday's Committee of the Whole meeting. "We probably could have."

That admission came during the hour-long council debrief in which elected officials and staff asked tough questions about the chain of events surrounding the collision Saturday, Nov. 23, that not only killed two UBC students heading north to Whistler, but also cut off the resort community on a busy weekend at the beginning of the ski season.

While all recognized the tragedy of the collision, concerns persist about the highway closure.

Councillor Roger McCarthy pointed out that though the resort is a 365-day resort, there are perhaps 160 days where Whistler really makes money, and of those 60 days are peak days.

"That's where the credit cards are coming from is up that road," he said.

Having the highway down can have deep ramifications to resort business.

Of the 20-member ICARS (Integrated Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Service) team, which does forensic analysis of serious traffic accidents in the Lower Mainland area stretching to Pemberton, two members responded to the accident at Lions Bay, which stretched across the highway. Typically four respond at any given time, but on this day just two were available.

Compounding the issue of timing was the fact that the two ICARS members were in Mission, recreating the scene of another fatal accident, when they got the call to attend the Sea to Sky accident. The distance added at least an hour to the day.

"These were the circumstances of that day," said Bouchar.

Municipal CAO Mike Furey asked Bouchar had two fatal accidents occurred on the Lions Gate Bridge and the Second Narrows Bridge, snarling traffic in the Lower Mainland instead of Highway 99, would back up resources have been called in?

"Who makes that call (for additional resources)?" Furey asked after stressing the point that Whistler is generating more than $1 million a day in tax revenues to higher levels of government. "Is there a protocol?"

It's something Bouchar said he would look into. At the same time, Bouchar said there are standard procedures to follow around any given fatal accident, and those simply take time.

"We always approach the collision from a criminal standpoint," he said, explaining the painstaking process of collecting the evidence.

Councillor John Grills floated the idea of having a dedicated ICARS team established in the corridor.

"Obviously one of the challenges we have is when the road does close we have no other options," he said.

Bouchar said that relocation would be inefficient. In 2009/10 ICARS attended five incidents in the corridor out of 260. The following year they attended one. And in 2011/12, it was again five.

Bouchar offered council an insight of how the response to the Nov. 23 unfolded.

The first call was made to dispatch around 7:30 a.m. Within half an hour, the ICARS was notified they had to go to the Lions Bay accident. The two ICARS members arrived just before 10:30 a.m. and estimated it would take about five and a half hours to do the forensic examination of the scene.

The coroner began investigating at 2 p.m. The bodies were removed at 4 p.m. More forensic work was done after the cars were removed from the site. The highway was reopened at 5:20 p.m.

"It's a long closure — 10 hours," said Bouchar after the meeting. "In my view, that's a long closure as well. I get concerned when I hear that, whether it's here or anywhere else in the province. We're going to look at this. We're going to see whether there's ways that we can improve our response."

At the same time, the police must do their job.

"We owe it to the people in the car," said Bouchar. "Really, we do. We owe it to them; we owe it to their family. I would hate to go to a coroner's inquest, or a criminal trial, and be asked a question 'well why didn't you photograph that' (and say), 'well, I wanted to get the highway open, I had pressures to get the highway open.'

"I understand the inconvenience it causes to those but just imagine if that was your mother, your brother, your son or daughter in that car.

"That's the perspective. Sometimes people lose that perspective."

Later this month, on January 21, stakeholders will be meeting to discuss protocols of communicating to the public when there is a significant road closure.

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