The truck driver who caused the deadly Humboldt Broncos bus crash stood silently for a moment, steadied himself with his hands on a table, then took responsibility for killing 16 people and injuring 13 others.
“It happened because of my lack of experience and I’m so, so, so, so sorry,” Jaskirat Singh Sidhu said Thursday in front of dozens of the victims’ relatives in a Melfort, Sask. courtroom.
The 30-year-old told the families he can’t imagine what they are going through and realizes he took “the most valuable things of your life.”
Provincial court Judge Inez Cardinal heard lawyers argue for sentences ranging from 1 1/2 years in jail to up to 10 years in prison. She said she will hand down her decision March 22.
The judge was told that Sidhu was an inexperienced driver, travelling for the first time in a rural area near Tisdale last April, when he barrelled through a stop sign and into the path of the oncoming bus carrying the junior hockey team to a playoff game.
The bus was torn into three pieces and the rig, carrying two trailers loaded with bales of peat moss, flipped onto its side.
“I came out of the truck and I heard the kids crying,” Sidhu said. “It took me time to see, realize that it’s a bus.”
“I can’t ever imagine what you guys are going through … I take full responsibility for what has happened.”
Several family members in court hugged each other before they quietly left the courtroom.
Sidhu pleaded guilty to 29 counts of dangerous driving before the sentencing hearing in a makeshift courtroom at an event centre gymnasium.
Ninety victim impact statements were submitted from family members over three days. They cried as they spoke of their unending grief for those who died and their frustration for those forever scarred. Some said they can forgive Sidhu, while others said they are too angry.
Crown prosecutor Thomas Healey told court that he admires the ability to forgive, but that actions must have consequences. He said that while there has been no case like it before in Canada, a sentence of 10 years with a 10-year driving prohibition would be appropriate.
Healey described how Sidhu was travelling between 86 and 96 km/hr when he passed four signs informing him of the upcoming intersection before he came across an oversized stop sign with a flashing light.
“Mr. Sidhu had more than enough time to bring the semi to a complete stop,” said Healey.
He said Sidhu should have seen the busy highway coming up in front of him or the car stopped across the road that was waiting for the Broncos bus to pass.
“How do you miss that? It’s just astounding,” Healey said. “All he had to do was stop. That’s all.”
Healey said it wasn’t a case of rolling through a stop sign.
“This was more like a rocket,” he said. “There was nowhere for the bus driver, Glen Doerksen, to go.”
Court heard Doerksen did brake but had no time to avoid the truck that was blocking all lanes of traffic.
“This wasn’t just an accident,” said Healey. “This was a crime.”
News of the crash made headlines around the world and people across Canada responded by pulling on sports jerseys and leaving hockey sticks on porches to honour those on the bus.
One of Sidhu’s defence lawyers, Glen Luther, told court he has been touched by the tragedy himself. “My hockey stick remains outside my door.”
But he said it does not fit among the worst dangerous driving cases.
The defence made no specific sentence recommendation but cited other dangerous driving penalties stretching from 1 1/2 to 4 1/2 years behind bars.
Mark Brayford said he knows the victims’ families have been asking why his client went through the stop sign.
“I’m disappointed to say that I can’t tell people what happened,” he said. “He simply doesn’t know.”
“He beats himself up everyday. ‘Why didn’t I see the signs? Why didn’t I stop?'”
Brayford said Sidhu immigrated from India five years ago and, three weeks before the crash, was hired by a small Calgary trucking company. He spent two weeks driving with another trucker before heading out on his own for his first time in the area near Tisdale.
About 15 minutes before the collision, Sidhu stopped to adjust tarps covering his load. As he headed toward the intersection, he was still focused on the tarps and was looking in his rear mirrors, said Brayford.
He said Sidhu didn’t see the intersection and he didn’t see the bus.
Brayford added that there’s no evidence Sidhu deliberately chose to blow through the intersection to save time, otherwise he would have been charged with criminal negligence.
Brayford also said that any sentence over six months would likely mean his client is deported, because he is not a Canadian citizen.
A few months after the crash, the federal government changed the Criminal Code, increasing the maximum penalty for dangerous driving causing death from 14 years to life in prison. It also increased the maximum sentence for dangerous driving causing bodily harm from 10 years to 14 years.
The Crown noted Sidhu must be sentenced under the previous law.
Story by Chris Purdy and Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press