A fatal car accident last week that left two people with deep ties to Whistler dead has led to calls for a reassessment of highway safety in the Lillooet area.
On Friday afternoon, Jan. 2, RCMP said a southbound 2005 Toyota Sequoia carrying a Squamish family of five on Highway 99 North crossed the centre line and sideswiped a second vehicle headed in the opposite direction, about two kilometres outside of Lillooet,
The collision caused the Toyota to veer off the road and plunge down a steep embankment before coming to rest on the shores of the Fraser River.
The 46-year-old driver from Squamish, Rob Sage, escaped the vehicle with his two daughters, aged 11 and four. They have since been released from hospital.
But tragically, the other two passengers — Sage's wife, Trish Donohue, 46, and their seven-year-old son McCaul — were found unresponsive and later died at the scene. While authorities have not officially released the names of the deceased, the family has confirmed their identities to Pique.
The driver and passenger of the second vehicle, Lillooet residents, were not injured.
The accident, and a rash of others in the last few years, prompted Lillooet resident Deanne Zeidler to take action this week. The former Whistler local has drafted a petition calling for the province to reassess the need for further safety measures around Lillooet on Highway 99, Highway 12 and Road 40, specifically. At press time, 750 people had signed the petition.
"I just felt like, for the number of lives that have been lost consistently on the roads in this area, and the increasing number of people I know from Whistler and Pemberton who travel these roads, we need to make the government a little bit more aware," Zeidler said.
The petition also suggests that installing concrete barriers on especially dangerous stretches of highway could be a solution, although Zeidler admitted the main priority should be around research.
Family and friends of the Sage-Donohue family are reeling at the loss.
Friend and co-worker Kristi Hernandez remembered Trish as a natural entertainer, loving mother and loyal friend with a passion for real estate and the Whistler lifestyle.
"Her sense of humour is probably what people will remember the most. She could say what you were thinking in very few words," she said.
In her time in the resort, Donohue worked as a waitress, a grocery clerk and at Whistler Blackcomb, saving her extra money for a recreational property in Bridge Lake, before working her way up to become a development property manager in Squamish. She was instrumental in several major development projects, like Amblepath and the residences at Quest University, Hernandez said.
"Her greatest strength in the workplace was coming up with solutions. She connected people with each other and helped every idea become a reality," she added.
"She had real depth. For me, I can't believe I will never be able to hear her warm, compassionate voice again."
Trish's employer, Michael Hutchison of the Bethel Lands Corporation, has also committed to finishing construction on a home the family was building in Squamish's Crumpit Woods development.
The communities of Whistler and Squamish have come together to support the family, with friends opening an account at the Squamish Nesters location so shoppers can donate their points or add to the account. Donations can also be made at the Whistler store.
Sue Adams, owner of The Grocery Store, where Rob was an employee for 20 years, said there would likely be a fundraiser for the family in the near future.
"The family is very connected in Whistler and in Squamish, and they are valuable people in our Grocery Store family," Adams said.
"(Rob) is extremely well liked and a mentor to many of the young people who have worked for us over the years."
Police said they believe a sudden, heavy snowfall on Friday afternoon was a contributing factor in the crash. It may take several months before a full report on the cause of the crash is released said Const. Kris Clark with the RCMP's Southeast District.
The accident is just the latest to take place on one of the treacherous roads in and around Lillooet. On Dec. 23, a truck driver was rushed to hospital with non-life threatening injuries after his tractor-trailer slid off of Highway 99 and into Cayoosh Creek, about 35 kilometres south of Lillooet. In June 2013, two teenagers were taken to hospital after their vehicle veered off of Highway 99 South before rolling to the bottom of a nearby hill. In January of the same year, a nurse was killed on Road 40 after her truck fell nearly 250 metres off a cliff, rolling several times before coming to a stop in Bridge River.
Between 2008 and 2012, there were 557 fatalities as a result of motor vehicle accidents in the Southern Interior, which encompasses the southern third of the province, including Lillooet, Kamloops and the Okanagan. The region accounted for over a third of all motor vehicle fatalities in B.C. over that period.
SLRD chair and Whistler councillor Jack Crompton was one of the petition's early signatories, and echoed Zeidler's comments about the need for further safety analysis.
"The SLRD has been making requests of the provincial government to improve that road for a long time," he said. "Revisiting the safety of that road is important. I'm obviously not an engineer and can't give you a scientific answer on what should exactly be done, but I'd like to see what an expert has to say."
Jordan Sturdy, MLA for West Vancouver-Sea to Sky, said he has "every confidence" that the Ministry of Transportation, working in conjunction with the RCMP and B.C. Coroners Service, will assess the situation and determine possible solutions if necessary, but said that any decision officials make — including the installation of barriers — must be financially sound.
"There is a budget, which is a fairly substantial budget, for highways, but obviously there's not enough money there to do everything all the time at any time, so you have to make judicious decisions," he said.
"Anytime anything like this happens it is just tragic. You have to assess what the best solution is, or whether there is one, and sometimes there isn't."