Trucker friend of deceased Karanjot Sodhi, who died in Merritt bus crash, raises alarm bellsover dangerous BC highways conditions
When Kulwinder Bal, a Surrey resident, ended a phone call after speaking to Karanjot Sodhi on December 24, little did he know it would be the last he would hear from his childhood friend.
Sodhi, 41, was traveling to Vancouver on an e-bus from Oliver BC on December 24 when he was in a tragic accident just hours after the phone call. The bus encountered rough road conditions and made a left turn, crossing the median and spinning onto the passenger side on Highway 97C near the Loon Lake exit. According to the police, the highway was extremely icy at the time.
Bal, who has been in the trucking business for 10 years, spoke in an interview with The Link newspaper about dangerous conditions on BC’s highways and how truckers put their lives at risk when traveling on these roads. “If a truck isn’t safe, how can a passenger bus be safe on roads like this?” he asked.
Bal was attempting to reach his home from Calgary to Surrey the same day he was speaking to his friend. “I told Vickey (Karanjot) that my wife would pick him up from Guildford Town Center as I couldn’t reach Surrey. His bus was supposed to arrive at 9am.”
But when Bal’s wife heard nothing from Karanjot and her calls went unanswered, she began to worry. “We tried his number all night but got no answer. It wasn’t until 6:30 am on Christmas morning that we heard from Merritt RCMP about the bus accident. We called the hotline number given to us. But Karanjot’s name was not on the list of survivors. But we were not informed about causalities during the accident.”
Bal said Golden police only called us later in the afternoon to confirm the identity of Karanjot, who was found dead among other passengers.”
According to the police, there were a total of 46 people on the bus. “We can confirm that tragically 4 passengers were found dead at the scene. It is believed that 22 passengers were transported to Kelowna Hospital, 6 to Penticton Hospital and 13 to Merritt Hospital. The 4 deceased were transported by the BC Coroners Service. No passengers were left at the scene. The area around the collision was searched by first responders,” BCRCMP said in a press release.
The e-bus was fitted with seat belts, but according to police, “unfortunately, the majority of passengers do not appear to have been wearing them”.
The passengers were a mix of locals, non-locals and foreigners.
The police have not yet released any information about the patient. Sodhi is the first of the four passengers to be publicly identified. It was Gurpreet Sahota, editor of Charhdi Kala and Akal Guardian Punjabi Newspapers, who confirmed Karanjot’s identity on his social media. Bal informed: “Gurpreet, I and Karanjot are from Butala near Amritsar. He has no family here. We were his family. He came to us when he landed in Canada.”
Bal said Karanjot only came to Canada 4 months ago. He leaves behind two small children, a wife and a mother. Before moving to Canada, he worked as a chef in Australia. “But since he couldn’t get his PR, he decided to come to Canada on a work visa and started working as a chef in Oliver, BC.”
Karanjot was traveling to Surrey to celebrate Christmas with his friends when he encountered the tragedy.
Investigations into the cause of the accident are still ongoing, but of course adverse road conditions are to blame.
Bal said accidents on BC freeways are a common sight. “The road conditions are extremely dangerous even in summer. The government may think we are to blame for the loss of our loved one, but I urge the media and government agencies to go to Kamloops in person this winter and see how dangerous the situation is.”
Singh said it took him 12 hours to drive from Golden to Surrey before Christmas, a journey that normally takes nearly six hours due to poor road conditions.
For the past two weeks, Singh said he’s seen multiple accidents on the roads every day, the worst stretches between Hope and Kamloops, Kamloops and Revelstoke, and Revelstoke and Golden.
But he said the government only investigates when a major tragedy occurs. “How many of you know that there was an accident in the same place a few days ago? The flights were cancelled, the bridges were closed, why was there another bus?”
The government issued a public recommendation to avoid unnecessary travel these days. “What about important trips? What is the government doing for those traveling for essential work? I think our government is sleeping.”
Even Merritt Mayor Mike Goetz questioned why the road, also known as Highway 97C, wasn’t closed by road maintenance contractors on Christmas Eve.
“I think the contractor should have been a little more proactive on the freeway that night and closed that freeway,” Goetz said in a media interview. “I don’t think this highway should have been opened to public transport at that point because it was just way too dangerous.”
According to Bal, this bus tragedy should be a wake-up call to investigate and take action to improve road conditions. “It was a very serious accident and I am sure that the survivors suffered serious injuries.”
Bal has also created a GoFundMe page to raise money for his family and make sure his family come here and perform the last unction of their loved one. To date, the community has raised over $30,000.
Prime Minister David Eby, Public Safety Secretary and Attorney General Mike Farnworth, Health Secretary Adrian Dix and Transport and Infrastructure Secretary Rob Fleming released a joint statement on the bus accident. “This Christmas Eve we are shocked and saddened to hear of the serious bus accident on Highway 97C Okanagan Connector between Merritt and Kelowna. Our thoughts are with those affected by the crash, their families and the first responders and healthcare workers who are doing everything they can to treat and protect people.”