Jury begins deliberations at coroners inquest into deadly New Brunswick crash

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BATHURST, N.B. - After eight days of often emotional testimony from almost two dozen witnesses, a coroner's jury began deliberating Wednesday on ways to help prevent another accident like the one that killed seven high school basketball players and the wife of their coach.
The members of the Bathurst High Phantoms were returning from an evening away game in Moncton, N.B., in January 2008 when their 15-passenger school van slid on a slush-covered highway outside Bathurst and into the path of an oncoming transport truck.
Five of the boys who died - Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Codey Branch, Daniel Hains and Javier Acevedo - were 17 years old. The other two students were Nick Quinn, 16 and Nicholas Kelly 15.
The eighth victim as Beth Lord, 51, who was a respected teacher at another school.
Her husband, Wayne Lord, and daughter, Katie, along with two players survived the accident.
''It has been very emotional and overwhelming eight days, and very stressful,'' said Isabelle Hains, Daniel's mother, as the jury left the court to begin their deliberations.
During the inquest, the jury heard from both drivers: Wayne Lord, and trucker Austin Ward.
Both described in eerie detail how the highway was covered in snow, and as the vehicles neared each other, Lord veered to the right to give the truck a wide berth.
Lord said the van's passenger-side wheels caught the edge of the pavement and his resulting steering correction sent the van into a slide into the path of the truck.
An emotional RCMP Cpl. Mario Dupuis, who was first on the scene, described the accident scene and his call for help after discovering there were so many fatalities.
Other testimony concentrated on the shoulder of the road and the fact a similar accident occurred at the same spot in December 2007, a month before the team crash.
Greg Sypher, an investigator for Transport Canada, was critical of the condition of the van, saying it would not have passed a motor vehicle inspection at the time of the accident. He was also critical of the fact the van sported all-season tires instead of winter tires.
The jury was told that while the van was classified as a passenger vehicle, it was also considered a bus because it carried more than 10 passengers. As a bus it would require a motor vehicle inspection every six months, and drivers were required to keep proper logs. Neither was done.
John McLaughlin, the school district superintendent, said that while provincial guidelines detailed all the requirements, there was no process in place to ensure any were being followed.
As well, any coach or parent with a Class 4 driver's licence could operate the vehicles.
During Wednesday's testimony, retired school bus driver Bob Comeau explained the training received by yellow school bus drivers to get their Class 2 licence.
He said the requirements include taking a 32-hour course and then passing written and driving tests.
Comeau added he had driven sports teams on his yellow bus a number of times and he never knew of any time when a coach asked for a yellow bus but one wasn't available.
A number of previous witnesses said many coaches preferred to take the vans because many of the teams or groups were small, with as few as four or five people.
The 15-passenger vans are no longer used for the transport of students in New Brunswick.
The parents of the boys who died in the crash submitted their own list of recommendations for the jury to consider. They include a call for the Education Department to take full responsibility for children's safety when they travel to off-site extracurricular events.
They also want regulations to prevent students from being transported to events in bad weather.
The list includes about 20 items, including a ban on 15- and seven-passenger vans for student travel.
Meanwhile, Hains said she wants change to protect children, and won't give up until they are made.
''I'm not going to stop here if those recommendations don't get put forward,'' she said. ''It's just the beginning for me, not the end.''

Organizations: Bathurst High Phantoms, Codey Branch, RCMP Transport Canada Education Department

Geographic location: New Brunswick, BATHURST, Moncton

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