Doug Westhouse sits straight behind the wheel of a 12-passenger bus driving along a rural Manitoba highway waiting for the next call for a ride.
The coordinator and driver for Grand Plains Handivan in Greenview, Man., slows the hefty vehicle down as an oncoming semi-trailer truck passes by on Highway 5.
He says he’s been thinking a lot about another minibus, not much larger than the one he drives, that crashed with a semi last week on the same road. Fifteen seniors on the bus were killed.
“There’s just sorrow,” Westhouse says.
The bus was heading south on Highway 5, carrying a group of seniors from Dauphin and the surrounding area to a casino Thursday, when it crossed the Trans-Canada Highway and went into the path of the truck near the town of Carberry, some 190 kilometres to the south.
Health officials have said 10 others on the bus, including the driver, were in hospital. Five were in critical condition.
“Being familiar with that corner, it’s a dangerous corner,” says Westhouse, shaking his head.
“They should have stoplights there.”
Westhouse has been driving minibuses and other passenger vehicles for years, after retiring from his career as a welder. His current job with Grand Plains Handivan sees him transport seniors and people with disabilities from Grandview and Gilbert Plains about 50 kilometres east to Dauphin for medical and dental appointments, grocery shopping and visits with family and friends.
He smiles while talking about a regular passenger, a woman in her 90s who’s fiercely funny and visits her husband in a nearby care home.
Another passenger, a younger woman who uses a wheelchair, calls him grandpa.
The customers are like family, he says.
Westhouse knows one woman who was on the bus that crashed. She had just bought new furniture for her home and was excited for the delivery on Monday, he says.
He pauses. “She was so nice.”
He hasn’t heard yet if she was killed or survived. RCMP are to release the names of the victims on Thursday.
Quality Care Transit in Dauphin owned the bus involved in the crash. RCMP have said 25 people were on board.
Grand Plains Handivan buses are smaller. There’s the 12-passenger bus, an older 15-passenger bus and a wheelchair-accessible minivan.
Westhouse says they get a safety check every year. And before each trip, drivers check around the vehicle to ensure it’s in good condition. All passengers are required to wear seatbelts and wheelchairs are clipped in to the floor.
Westhouse says he knows all the grain bins, trees and dangerous intersections on the routes he takes multiple times each day.
But he still has to be cautious.
The busdrives differently than other vehicles, he says. It takes a lot longer to accelerate, and a lot longer to slow down.
Despite giant side view mirrors, there are still blind spots, he adds. Before crossing a highway or making a turn, drivers of the larger buses have to do an extreme “head bop.”
Lean far forward, look both ways, lean back and do the same thing, he says.
For seniors in communities across Manitoba, these buses are an essential means of travel.
Westhouse uses the wheelchair-accessible van to pick up a client from an appointment in Dauphin and take him back to Grandview. A volunteer who helps seniors get to appointments also gets on.
They chat about health careand the hot weather as the van passes by farmhouses and fields.
Westhouse says most clients haven’t been talking much about the crash. Some have Alzheimer’s disease or other health issues that make it difficult to comprehend what happened.
Others just aren’t ready, he says.
Westhouse says he and other bus drivers have talked about the wave of guilt that washes over them when they tell themselves: “Thank God it wasn’t me.”
But they are still getting behind the wheel, he says, because they know how important the transportation is.
“I’m responsible for those people in the back,” Westhouse says.