Monday, October 21, 2013

Telegraph Journal: New book chronicles Van Angels’ fight for justice

The fight for answers by Ana Acevedo and Isabelle Hains, who lost their sons Javier and Daniel in a tragic car accident along with their fellow Bathurst High School boys basketball teammates, is detailed in a new book being released this week. Photo: Telegraph-Journal Archive

Chris Morris

Legislature Bureau
21 Oct 2013 08:06AM

To some people, they were just troublemakers unable to get beyond the heartbreak caused by the accidental deaths of their beloved sons.

To others, Isabelle Hains and Ana Acevedo were heroines fighting to correct a flawed system that killed their sons, Daniel and Javier, along with five other teenage boys and a teacher in a horrific crash on a highway outside Bathurst in 2008.

To author Richard Foot, Hains and Acevedo are portraits in courage, women who deserve everyone’s admiration for daring to stand up and say “Why?” and “Never again.”

Foot’s book, Driven, which hits the stands this week, is a gripping account of the mistakes, the bureaucratic failures and the fight for justice that came out of the deaths of the Boys in Red. The subtitle of the 264-page book, published by Goose Lane, is How the Bathurst Tragedy Ignited a Crusade for Change.

To be clear at the start, Foot, a Halifax-based journalist who covered the crash, does not believe it was what is often described as “an unavoidable accident.”

“I don’t think it was an accident at all,” Foot said in an interview.

“There were four guidelines in the Education Act at the time of the crash that are particularly relevant. Three of them were: no travel at night, no travel in snow storms and drivers can’t be on duty for more than 14 hours. If any of those three had been followed, the crash would not have happened. It’s just common sense. The fourth one was winter tires on vehicles in the winter and we know that police and Transport Canada investigators said that was a major contributing factor. So if that fourth guideline had been followed, the crash almost certainly would not have happened. “In the face of that kind of evidence, I don’t see how anyone can call it an unavoidable accident. I think it was entirely avoidable.”

Javier Acevedo, Codey Branch, Nathan Cleland, Justin Cormier, Daniel Hains, Nick Kelly, Nickolas Quinn and Elizabeth Lord, the wife of coach Wayne Lord – who was at the wheel of the 15-passenger van when it slid into the path of a transport truck – were all killed on Jan 12, 2008, in one of the worst vehicle crashes in New Brunswick history.

It is painful to read the opening chapters of Driven as Foot retraces the doomed trip in a rundown, 15-passenger van with balding, all-season tires and worn brakes driving on snowy, slushy roads.

Any parent will be affected by the account of the moms and dads who were waiting that night for the Bathurst High basketball players to return from a Moncton game – the kind of scene replayed throughout the school year by parents with kids in school athletic programs.

One of the boys, Nick Kelly, turned 16 just eight minutes before Lord lost control of the van and slid in front of the transport truck. One of the last things that happened in the vehicle was everyone singing Happy Birthday – a bunch of great kids with what should have been long, wonderful lives ahead of them.

In a journal entry, Hains spoke to her son Dan after identifying his body at the morgue. “I remember asking the nurses if you suffered and they said you didn’t,” she wrote. “I don’t know how long I stayed there with you. I told everyone in the room you were a good boy. Beautiful boy. My gentle giant.” While some families quietly accepted their loss and moved on with their lives, Hains and Acevedo turned their grief and anger into a crusade to try and make school transportation safer for everyone in Canada.

Because of the Bathurst tragedy, rules are a lot tighter in New Brunswick, one of three provinces that now ban 15-passenger vans for the transportation of students.

And the “guidelines” which would have prevented the tragedy had anyone of them been followed that night, are now firm policies.

The mothers, who became known as the Van Angels, are still battling for national standards and while they have had some success on that front, there is nothing definitive at this point. A series of tests at the federal level concluded that 15-seat vans, in and of themselves, are not inherently dangerous. But there is a wide acceptance that they need to be driven in a special way to make sure they are safe.

Foot said he believes that school, provincial and municipal officials – many of whom would not be interviewed for his book – tried to gloss over the alleged failures at the heart of the tragedy.

“I feel like they sort of circled the wagons,” he said.

“I think official New Brunswick should have been willing to ask some harder questions about why it happened instead of just accepting the common view held by many people that it was just a freak, unavoidable accident and we should just deal with our grief and move on.” Foot said he believes that if Hains and Acevedo had not pushed for it, there would not have been a coroner’s inquest into the crash. One was finally held in the spring of 2009.

“I really don’t understand why an inquest wasn’t immediately ordered,” he said.

“It took months for that to happen and in my opinion it took these women to start campaigning for it. I believe they are the reason the inquest was ordered. That is just a mystery to me when you lose seven kids and a teacher on a school trip – it is just a no-brainer to call an inquest.”

Acevedo states in the book that the drive to have an inquest and get answers wasn’t about trying to get a monetary settlement or sending someone to jail.

“Those things wouldn’t bring my child back,” she said. “What I wanted was some accountability because up to that point my son had been killed and nothing had been done. It was a big insult.”

Foot said he realizes there are conflicting opinions in New Brunswick about the Van Angels campaign and the relentless drive of the mothers to get answers.

He said some people started to view them as troublemakers, especially in Bathurst. But he said they also have enjoyed the support of many people and were able to garner thousands of signatures on petitions.

“They were right in their campaign and they were right to ask the questions they asked and they were right to have the expectation that an inquest would be carried out and that the loss of these boys would produce some kind of introspection and examination of the status quo,” Foot said.

“They were right to embark on this crusade. But I understand how a lot of New Brunswickers got tired of these women. They were in the news all the time, constantly asking the same questions. … I understand that. But just because you are tired of hearing about an issue doesn’t mean the people out there pushing the issue shouldn’t continue.”

Driven goes on sale in New Brunswick on Tuesday.