TORONTO - The brutal misidentification of two young hockey players involved in the horrific bus crash in Saskatchewan resonates loudly with one father in California, who thought he had buried his son only to learn his boy was in fact alive and well.
Speaking from his home in Riverside County, Frank Kerrigan struggled to articulate the jumble of crushing, conflicting emotions that swept the family after the coroner told him his son was dead.
"My son is alive and we are so joyful for that but we are also mourning his death still," Kerrigan, 82, told The Canadian Press. "The joy, as tremendous as it is, at the same time is as painful as it is because of what we went through."
The coroner's office in Orange County informed Kerrigan that his 57-year-old son, who had been living on the streets, was dead. The body had been positively identified through fingerprints, Kerrigan said he was told. Police said his son's ID was found with the body. Authorities sent him the body for burial.
For Kerrigan, there was no reason to doubt what he had been told.
"We believed our authorities; my son was dead," Kerrigan said. "They matched some body and sent it to us. That's a horror show on a horror show."
It was only 11 days after the funeral that a friend called to say his son was in fact alive, plunging the grieving family into a further emotional maelstrom that has yet to be fully explained.
Kerrigan's comments came just hours after a spokesman for Saskatchewan's Justice Ministry explained that authorities had mixed up two players as they dealt with the aftermath of the crash.
"We were made aware of an error that had occurred in the identification of two of the individuals," Drew Wilby said Monday. "Xavier Labelle, who had previously been confirmed deceased is not deceased. He is alive. Unfortunately, that means Parker Tobin has been confirmed to be deceased."
Wilby said the unfortunate mix-up occurred because the players were sporting playoff-solidarity blond hair, were similar in age and athletic build, and had suffered severe physical trauma in the crash that killed 15 and injured 14 others. Obtaining dental records, the best way to positively identify someone, would have taken time, Wilby said.
One infamous case in Canada occurred in 2004, when a man was killed by a commuter train in Toronto. A woman positively identified the victim as her 48-year-old brother. However, while the family was attending his funeral a few days later, the man showed up at his sister's house alive and well.
The Saskatchewan situations is most similar to another notorious case in the United States, where two young women — both blondes — were involved in a car crash in Indiana in 2006 that left five dead.
One grieving family ended up burying what they thought was their daughter, another spent weeks at the bed side of what they thought was their relative — only to discover the mix-up when the young woman had recovered enough to finally be able to identify herself.
Asked what advice he might have for the Labelle and Tobin families, Kerrigan struggled to explain the joy, but also the grief at knowing your unexpected gain has turned into someone else's tragic loss.
"I would absolutely accept the joy of finding the person alive but the guilt feelings that go in the other direction as well," Kerrigan said. "Both families are on the same see-saw of joy and grief at the same time. Obviously, the one that now finds their son dead that thought he was alive is like a double-whammy."
Nova Scotia's chief medical examiner, Dr. Matt Bowes, said he understood how a mix-up can occur given the pressure to identify victims and ease the distress on families by releasing the body of a loved one as quickly as possible.
Kerrigan, however, said the consequences of mistaken identity are profound to must be avoided at all costs.
"If you don't have positive identification and you haven't gone through the process of making 100 per cent sure — even in your rush to try to console everybody in such a tragedy — an honest mistake can't be made or shouldn't be made," Kerrigan said. "It just doesn't go away. Yes it fades, but it's in your psyche."