A bus full of seniors collided with a semi-trailer truck stopped on the Coquihalla on Wednesday night, striking the truck driver and triggering a chain reaction of collisions in icy, snowy conditions.
A Canada West coach returning to Kamloops from Merritt, slammed against the side of the semi around 6:45 p.m., one kilometer south of the Inks Lake turnoff.
Another semi travelling immediately behind the coach was unable to stop in time and hit the back of the bus.
"All of a sudden, it was wall to wall wheels," said the driver of the second semi, who didn't want to give his name. He didn't see the initial crash.
The semi driver was immediately rushed to hospital with severe injuries.
A Ford Explorer was sandwiched between his second semi and the curb, while a fifth vehicle, an older-model sedan, crashed into the curb behind it.
About 30 passengers were trapped on the bus for an hour or more as first responders, including paramedics and Kamloops Fire and Rescue, worked to remove them safely.
"We're trying to figure out how to get the passengers off the bus at this point," said RCMP Const. Jason Epp.
Diesel fuel spilled from the first semi, prompting rescuers to set fire extinguishers nearby as a precaution.
They had to smash open the front window of the bus, triage the passengers, then carefully remove them one by one, starting with those suspected of having injuries. The first, who complained of leg pains, was removed on a spine board. Two Canada West staff members from Kamloops arrived to lend assistance.
RIH called in extra staff to receive an expected 20 to 30 patients, as many as six of them critically injured. Police insisted Thursday that none of the injuries was critical despite earlier reports from B.C. Ambulance Service.
The accident occurred around 6:45 p.m. in blizzard conditions. The road surface was a virtual ice rink. Highway plows were clearing the road and spreading gravel to assist in the rescue.
"We were coming through a total white-out," said Richard Smith from Surrey. He was stuck in a lineup that stretched for kilometres to the brake check at the top of the hill. Traffic was halted in both directions because southbound semi-trailer trucks, once they'd stopped, couldn't start on the hill without putting on chains.
Visibility was poor prior to the crash.
"We were driving along at about 40 km/h, following the taillights," said Adam Flundra, who was driving home after working 28 straight days of 12-hour shifts at Highland Valley Copper. He, too, was stuck in line behind the accident.
"I was worried about another domino."
Flundra, who holds a first-aid certificate, went to assist victims, but was asked to remain in his vehicle. Paramedics responded quickly, he said.
"It's going to be a long time," exclaimed one driver also stuck in line.
The highway was expected to remain closed in the northbound lane until midnight. Southbound traffic began moving shortly before 8 p.m.