The coroner who investigated the Humboldt Broncos bus crash in Saskatchewan says it wasn’t until an injured player woke up in hospital and said he wasn’t who everyone thought he was that officials realized there had been a big mistake in identifying who had died.
Since the crash, Parker Tobin’s loved ones from Alberta had been at the bedside of the player they thought was Parker, an 18-year-old goalie. He had serious facial injuries, but they believed he was their boy.
It turned out it was actually teammate Xavier Labelle in the bed, a player already listed as among the many dead and being remembered at a public vigil that night.
“Xavier woke up and said, ‘I’m not Parker Tobin,”‘ Wayne Nogier, a community coroner in Melfort, Sask., recalled this week.
The mix-up compounded an already unthinkable tragedy.
Nogier is a former paramedic who also sits on the board of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association and has worked as a referee. He was the first of two coroners to arrive at the crash site north of Tisdale on April 6 and is listed as the coroner on the case file.
The junior hockey team had been on its way to a Friday night playoff game when its bus and a truck collided at a rural intersection.
Fourteen bodies from the wreckage were taken to a Saskatoon funeral home that acted as the morgue over that weekend, said Nogier. Fifteen injured people were taken to hospital and two died in the days that followed.
Photos and information from the team, including the players’ heights and weights, were initially used by staff from the coroner’s office and funeral home to match the bodies with names, said Nogier.
It was a difficult task.
The players had all dyed their hair blonde and were growing playoff beards. Most didn’t have their wallets on them.
An assistant coach helped identify the bodies before the families were brought in, said Nogier. All were able to confirm the matches, except in Labelle’s case.
“The family looked and they’re saying, ‘Oh geez. You know. Maybe. Probably. Umm, I don’t know. Nobody else is unaccounted for. Maybe.”‘
Nogier said Labelle, an 18-year-old defenceman from Saskatoon, had previously worn braces, so a request was made for his dental records. His orthodontist had been planning to head to his office that Sunday night to pull Labelle’s films.
But before he could send them to the coroner’s office, the player who was actually Labelle woke up.
By then, his name was listed among the dead on a news release that had been sent out Sunday afternoon from the coroner’s office and the RCMP. His name was also read aloud at the vigil in Humboldt.
Nogier said he doesn’t know who made the decision to release the name — only that he didn’t sign off on it.
When the mix-up was discovered, the Labelle and Tobin families switched places. Nogier said Tobin’s family was asked for an identification and was certain it was the 18-year-old goalie.
They were understanding about the mistake, he said.
“They’re devastated and beyond words as to what’s occurring, yet happy for the Labelle family that things have turned out in their case,” Nogier said.
“These teams are very close and these kids are all families to all of these parents.”
Labelle’s family released a photo earlier this month of him at physiotherapy and said they hold no ill will about the error.
Grant Bastedo, a representative of the Broncos and some of the players’ families, including the Labelles, said people did their best during an incredibly sad time.
“It was a mistake that was made. Don’t know who made it — it doesn’t matter. It’s water under the bridge,” he said.
Drew Wilby of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Justice, which oversees the coroner’s office, apologized at the time the mistake was made public. He said the coroner’s office was doing an internal review of what happened to see if improvements could be made.
RCMP did not respond to a request for comment.
Saskatoon’s former police chief, Clive Weighill, had been tasked before the crash with reviewing the coroner’s system in Saskatchewan. He told The Canadian Press in an email that while he isn’t examining specific cases, Humboldt will be considered as part of his overall findings.
His review is to be done by July.
Nogier said he knew many of the Broncos and their families, and hopes the misidentification will provide an opportunity to further examine the coroner’s system.
He said he doesn’t believe changes, such as switching to a medical examiner who relies on forensic pathologists, would have made a difference in the Broncos case.
And, despite the error, the families were well served by first responders, police and coroner’s staff, Nogier said.
People may wonder how such a mistake could happen, he said, but it’s easy considering there were numerous casualties and many hurdles.
“If there’s an opportunity to be better, we should jump all over that, ” Nogier said.
“If there isn’t, we should be comfortable in the fact that everything that was done did get done and was done appropriately.”