Students and staff came together on campus Tuesday in memory of first year students who died in weekend accident
Rain splattered the pavement outside as university staff and students gathered in the Bibliocafé on Sep. 17 to grieve and support one another following the deaths of 18-year-old students John Geerdes and Emma Machado.
In his opening comments, UVic President Jamie Cassels expressed hope that the occasion would provide an opportunity for people to come together. The statements from UVic and UVSS leaders at the brief gathering focused on the mourning university community rather than on Geerdes and Machado’s lives and personalities. Neither family was in attendance, although Machado’s family was on campus that day.
“It seems like it’s so dark, really dark,” said Elder May Sam in a speech invoking strength and faith. “In my heart, I pray for you. I pray for strength and healing for you.”
Sam, of the Tsartlip First Nation, made the sign of the cross and gave a blessing in her native language, asking the Creator to protect “each and every one” affected by the tragedy. Those gathered bowed their heads as she sang in mournful, wavering tones.
Shelagh Rogers, the university chancellor, commented on the tangible sense of community in the Bibliocafé.
“We’re in an academic setting,” said Rogers. “We’re in the library. We don’t talk about love very often.”
The gathering, she said, was “something beautiful.”
UVSS Director of Outreach and Community Relations Jonathan Granirer, spoke about the importance of community in times of grief. He urged those in attendance to check on the wellbeing of friends, and to engage in the variety of communities on campus.
Cassels said that his “heart aches” for those impacted by Geerdes and Machado’s deaths, and that the university is doing everything possible to provide support.
“UVic is a supportive and resilient community,” said Cassels.
Following Cassels’ closing speech, many people remained in the Bibliocafé to talk and grieve. There were tears and hugs as mourners turned to one another.
Community and multifaith support staff were present at the gathering. Quiet spaces were made available to anyone who wished to use them.
Also in attendance was a therapy dog. At one point, the giant, black Newfoundland jumped up to put its paws on its handler’s shoulders, providing those sitting nearby with a brief moment of laughter.
Geerdes, from Iowa, and Machado, of Manitoba, were two of 45 students and two teaching assistants travelling by bus to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on an annual field trip offered by UVic to first-year biology students. On the night of Sep. 13, the bus overturned on the gravel road between Port Alberni and Bamfield, rolling nearly 10 meters down an embankment and landing upside down against a line of trees. The area does not have cellphone service, and two hours passed before ambulances arrived.
This is not the first crash to endanger students on the narrow road. On Sep. 17, 2017, a bus carrying students on the same field trip veered off the road. On that occasion, no one was hurt.
In 2010, a bus carrying students from Edmonton was trapped by washouts and the driver and passengers were stranded for over 18 hours before loggers found them.
Some bus companies and drivers refuse to make the trip between Port Alberni and Bamfield due to the risk posed by poor road conditions. Technically, the windy, pothole-ridden road is a logging road, and is only maintained by logging companies during the active season. The route is mainly used by the tiny community of Bamfield residents, who have been asking for proper road maintenance for years.
The next UVic trip to the Bamfield Sciences Marine Centre is scheduled for October. Currently, UVic does not plan to cancel the trip, and is awaiting the outcome of a university review and RCMP investigation to make a final decision.
This article was updated at 6 p.m. on Sept. 18 to include information regarding the university’s decision to continue with the October trip to Bamfield Sciences Marine Centre.