MONASTERY, N.S. - The seriously injured driver of a bus that veered off a bridge and plunged into a river in rural Nova Scotia Saturday was the same man behind the wheel of another intercity bus involved in an eerily similar crash last year.
Driver Ken Mitchell, a longtime employee of Acadian Lines, was among five people sent to hospital Saturday after his bus smashed through a bridge guardrail and fell almost eight metres to the ice-choked Tracadie River near Monastery.
Luckily, everyone aboard escaped - some with the help of emergency crews - as the bus remained only partially submerged in the frigid water.
One of the five passengers escaped unharmed and required no treatment, the RCMP said.
Denise Sirois, product manager for the Montreal-based bus line, confirmed Sunday that Mitchell was driving an Acadian bus in Cape Breton on Feb. 3, 2009 when it skidded on ice, pitched over a bridge and landed wheels-up in the Baddeck River.
One of the five passengers aboard that night suffered serious back injuries. Investigators later determined that bad weather was the main cause of that spectacular crash.
Witnesses at the scene of Saturday's accident said the Trans-Canada Highway in that corner of northeastern Nova Scotia was covered in snow and high winds were creating whiteout conditions.
Mitchell and one passenger remained in hospital Sunday, said Sirois.
RCMP spokeswoman Sgt. Brigdit Leger said the driver was the most seriously injured, though she couldn't comment on the specific condition of anyone else.
"However, at this point in time, none are in life-threatening condition," she said in an interview.
The bus was headed to Halifax from Sydney, N.S., when it reached the bridge just after 6 p.m. The 911 call came in at 6:22 p.m. AT.
Jim Wells, a paramedic supervisor with Emergency Health Services, said he arrived at the scene about 30 minutes after the accident.
Wells said the five people taken to hospital were all numb from the cold and suffering possible hypothermia.
"They were all in the water at one point before they got to land," he said Sunday.
"The driver was actually still in his seat and he was partially submerged ... legs and stuff. And they would have had to hit some water to get out the door."
Wells said he didn't see the rescue of the passengers, but heard reports about it from others at the scene.
"Several of them were actually on the roof and the rescue personnel had kind of spanned some ladders from either a section of land, or a section of ice, to the bus and they were retrieved that way."
Three large, industrial cranes lifted the bus out of the water Sunday. The badly damaged vehicle was later taken by the RCMP to New Glasgow, Sirois said.
The Monastery area is notorious for poor driving conditions in the winter. Permanent signs on that section of the Trans-Canada Highway - also known as Highway 104 - warn of the threat of blowing snow.
Strong winds sometimes sweep down the Tracadie River, which quickly widens to about 350 metres just past the bridge.
- By Derrick Toth and Michael MacDonald in Halifax