Dyed hair, similar builds behind mix-up of Humboldt Broncos bus crash victims

Members of the Humboldt Broncos junior hockey team are shown in a photo posted to the team Twitter feed, @HumboldtBroncos on March 24, 2018 after a playoff win over the Melfort Mustangs. Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice says one of the deceased in Friday's bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos was misidentified. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Twitter-@HumboldtBroncos MANDATORY CREDIT

HUMBOLDT, Sask. - One family got the worst news, the other the best.

After believing Humboldt Broncos hockey player Parker Tobin had survived the team's bus crash late last week in Saskatchewan, his family was told there had been a mistake.

He was actually dead.

It was Xavier Labelle, whose relatives had been mourning his death among the 15 killed on the bus, who was alive and recovering in hospital.

"That was a tough phone call," Drew Wilby, a spokesman for Saskatchewan's Ministry of Justice, said Monday in Regina.

"I don't think enough can ever be said. All I can do is offer our sincerest apologies, our sincerest condolences and sympathies, in particular to the Tobin family on the news that they would have received."

Wilby said authorities mixed up the identities of the two 18-year-old players, partly because they had similar builds and had dyed their hair bright gold for the playoffs, along with their teammates.

Tobin, a goalie, was from Stony Plain, Alta., where he was known for his voice as a previous announcer for his hometown Flyers hockey team.

Labelle is a defenceman from Saskatoon. His brother had previously posted an online tribute on the weekend about losing his best friend.

"All I can say is miracles do exist," Isaac Labelle wrote Monday on Facebook.

"My deepest condolences to the Tobin family."

A spokesperson for the Tobins and the Labelles released a statement on their behalf Monday, saying the two families are "grieving together.

"They hope the focus will remain on those grieving and those recovering, not the confusion in an unimaginable tragedy," the statement read, adding that both families are asking for privacy.

The Broncos junior team was heading to Nipawin on Friday when their bus collided with a semi truck carrying peat moss at an intersection north of Tisdale, about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon. RCMP confirmed that 15 people had died in the crash and 14 were injured.

Two people have since been released from hospital and, of the dozen that remain, four were listed in critical condition.

Over the weekend, Tobin's family had tweeted that their son was alive.

"This is one of the hardest posts I have ever had to make. Parker is stable at the moment and being airlifted to Saskatoon hospital," Rhonda Clarke Tobin wrote on Twitter shortly after the crash.

People reacted online with relief that he had survived.

Wilby said the Tobin and Labelle families were notified of the error Sunday night — the same night thousands of family members, friends and fans attended a solemn prayer vigil in the team's home rink. A few candles still flickered Monday morning outside the Elgar Petersen Arena, and a Broncos Strong sign sat on a bench near the entrance.

Both families have been understanding under the circumstances, Wilby said.

The coroner's office was following a standard procedure to identify the victims, he added — but it was challenging.

Relatives were involved in identifying the remains of the bus crash victims at a makeshift morgue, said Wilby. Dental records are the best way to identify the deceased but those can take days to track down, especially given that the hockey players were from all over Western Canada, he said.

Officials are confident all the other victims have been properly identified, said Wilby.

"This is unprecedented in Saskatchewan's history," he said. "Let's all pray that something like this never happens again."

Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone, who spoke at a news conference Monday about the health system's response to the crash, wouldn't answer questions about the mix-up and directed them to the province's justice ministry.

"We saw the absolute very best of Saskatchewan in one of the absolute worst situations possible," Livingstone said about the response to the crash.

Former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy — who survived a 1986 bus crash just outside Swift Current, Sask., that killed four of his teammates — also met with some of the survivors in hospital. Everyone is in a state of shock trying to process what happened, he said.

"What I know in these types of situations is we can't start pointing fingers. We have to stick together," he said about the mistake.

"Everybody that I've met here are trying to do the best they can."

Nick Shumlanski, the first of the Broncos to be released from hospital, posted a statement on Twitter thanking people for their support.

He also said he was lucky to have escaped with only minor injuries.

"The doctor told me it was truly a miracle that I was able to get up and walk away from the accident with very minor injuries and a couple of scars on my body.

"Although reality hasn't really set in yet, it is truly devastating to have lost so many close friends, brothers and amazing coaches. Times are tough right now but the support you all have shown is so amazing," he wrote.


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