Thousands gathered in a small-town hockey rink Sunday night in a national act of mourning for the victims of the bus crash that killed 15 members of the Humboldt Broncos hockey family in a collision on a rural highway in Saskatchewan while travelling to a playoff game on Friday.

Among the dead are 10 players, two coaches, the team’s broadcaster and statistician, and the driver of the bus. All of the bus’s remaining 14 passengers were injured, some critically.

Many at the Elger Petersen Arena in Humboldt, home ice for the Broncos, were in tears during the prayer service. Clergy members and other speakers offered strength and support to the residents, but had to battle with their emotions.

“God, we are hurt,” Sean Brandow, the pastor at the Humboldt Bible Church said, voice quivering. “There are so many questions, so many unanswered things. We need you so badly.”

Pastor Brandow, who is also the Broncos’ team chaplain, told the gathering that he didn’t want to go to the game on Friday, but his kids begged him. He arrived on the scene shortly after the team bus had been struck by a semi-tractor-trailer.

“I walked up on a scene that I never want to see again, to sounds I never want to hear again,” Pastor Brandow said. “To go to the hospital and walk around and just hear groaning and panic and fear and distress and pain − and just nothing but darkness. To sit and hold the hand of a lifeless body.

“The only part of that psalm that was just read, for about 15 hours, that I heard in my head was ‘Even though I walk through the valley of darkness. ‘ That’s all I heard. That’s it, and that’s all that went through my head. This is it, this is the valley of death, this is the valley of darkness. All I saw was hurt and anguish and fear and confusion.”

The arena in Humboldt was filled beyond its 2,000-seat capacity, with several hundred more grieving loved ones seated on the floor of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team’s home rink. More than 1,000 others watched the prayer service on closed-circuit television at a curling club, and still others viewed it in a neighbouring convention centre and gymnasium.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the crowd, having come from visiting players recovering in a hospital in Saskatoon. There were 29 passengers aboard the bus when it was struck by a semi-trailer en route to a playoff game in Nipawin, a community about 200 kilometres to the north.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was also seated among family members who were hugging each other and crying at the front of the rink. Hockey broadcasters Don Cherry and Ron MacLean were also there.

The stands were packed with players wearing Broncos’ jerseys. Players from other Junior-A level Saskatchewan teams, including the Estevan Bruins and Melfort Mustangs also came to pay their respects.

“This is one of the steps we have to take to go through the healing process of our community,” Humboldt mayor Rob Muench said, fighting through tears, as the program began. “We will get through this together.”

There were Kleenex boxes at the end of some rows and a group of pet therapy dogs for comfort, Jet, Molly and Jack among them. Songs sheets were passed out – Rock of Ages and What a Friend We Have in Jesus. At around 7:30, the time the Broncos had expected to be playing the Nipawin Hawks in another playoff game, a moment of silence was held.

Mr. Muench was at the community’s hockey arena on Saturday afternoon when the Prime Minister called.

Mr. Trudeau talked to him about the death of his brother in 1998, and how it had affected his parents. Michel was 23 when he died in an avalanche.

“He told me his son is at a point in hockey where he is beginning to travel,” Mr. Muench said.

The mayor of Swift Current, Sask., where four hockey players died in a bus crash in 1986, also called. The former mayor of Bathurst, N.B., sent a message, inviting Mr. Muench to call if he feels the need. Seven high-school basketball players from there died in 2008 when the school van they were riding in collided with a semi-trailer.

“I’m surprised and overwhelmed at the response,” Mr. Muench said. “Every community in Canada is similar to ours. They have a hockey team or school kids travelling on a bus on winter roads. That’s why this is getting traction.”

Mr. Muench was elected mayor in October of 2016 and had been a city councillor for 10 years before that. Nothing could prepare him for a catastrophe like the one that occurred on Friday night.

A bus carrying the players, staff, a broadcaster and statistician for the Humboldt Broncos was en route to a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League playoff game in Nipawin, about 200 kilometres to the north, when it collided with a semi-trailer. Fifteen of the 29 people aboard the bus died, and the others were injured.

It has left Humboldt heartbroken and Canadians shocked.

Mr. Muench and his wife were sitting down to dinner on Friday when she saw a message pop up on her phone, saying the Broncos game in Nipawin was cancelled because of an issue with the bus. But within minutes, he was in radio contact with people at the crash site and he knew fatalities had occurred.

About a hundred kilometres away in Saskatoon, Hassan Masri and the nurses, physicians, surgeons and neurosurgeons at Royal University Hospital were alerted that they were on Code Orange − mass casualties on the way.

“Most of us have never really witnessed anything like that in our careers,” Dr. Masri said.

Aerial photos from the crash site on Saturday showed catastrophic damage to the charter bus, which was lying on its side on a patch of snow just off the highway.

Much of the front half of the bus was missing and its roof had been ripped off. Hockey bags, sleeping bags and other belongings were scattered on the ground nearby. The tractor-trailer was sitting on its side parallel to the bus a short distance away. Its cargo, dozens of packages of peat moss, were strewn about the scene like a child’s blocks. Investigators could be seen surveying the wreckage with police vehicles not far away.

That anyone at all survived the wreckage is hard to fathom from the pictures.

Dr. Masri recalled delivering news of horrific injuries to distraught parents, only to see them smile with relief to learn their children were alive.

“Before I talk to families, I review what I should tell them,” Dr. Masri said. “In my mind, I’m thinking ‘How am I going to tell them about this horrible injury and how can I make it sound a little less horrible?’ I’m thinking they’re going to be devastated when I tell them.

“But then they’re relieved, like ‘Thank God it’s a horrible injury and not death.’ ”

He said that by 6 a.m. Saturday, when patients had been stabilized, he stopped to look around. Parents, siblings and medical personnel were in tears. Mothers tried to cuddle sons lying on stretchers.

In Humboldt on Saturday, people poured into the city of about 6,000.

“They were jumping in their cars and bringing flowers,” Mr. Muench said. “They weren’t from here, and didn’t have any connection to the team.”

The team’s playoff roster includes players aged mostly between 17 and 21; the younger player would have turned 17 next week.

RCMP didn’t release a full list of the names of the dead until Sunday, but social media lit up with deeply personal memorials to brothers, sons, teammates, friends.

The list includes the son of a former Edmonton Oiler, an 18-year-old Grade 12 student who was keeping stats for the league, a radio reporter whose job was play by play; the team’s much-loved coach; a player kept on life support so his organs could be donated.

There has been a junior-hockey team in Humboldt since 1947. The Broncos were founded in 1970, and won national championships in 2003 and 2008. A series of other championship banners hang above the ice from one side to the other.

A Broncos’ season ticket-holder since 1984, David Eberle stopped at the arena Sunday morning to add a bouquet to the memorial that grows with each day

His daughter had one player, Logan Boulet, billeting in her home. The 20-year-old from Lethbridge, Alta., died on Saturday. He was kept on life support until his family was able to say their goodbyes.

Mr. Eberle said his daughter’s 11-year-old and 14-year-old sons had looked up to Mr. Boulet. He was the third player she had taken in over the past five years.

“Everyone in one way or another is connected to the Broncos,” Mr. Eberle said.

MARTY KLINKENBERG, National Reporter
The Globe and Mail, April 8, 2018