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Cohen: The Boys in Red Tragedy

By Josh Cohen
November 15, 2011

While driving along a familiar highway in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, one may notice a very attention-grabbing basketball-oriented décor.

It’s complete with two garlanded basketball hoops, a trail of flowers and pictures of victims from an apparent horrific tragedy.


Nicholas Kelly

Close by, one may observe another memorial in a courtyard. It’s behind a nearby high school and like the aforementioned adornment; this commemorative display also includes basketball-related objects.

There is an archway with a bedecked basketball net and a quaint nook with benches and plants.

At the entrance, there are seven names engraved on brass plates. It’s obvious they were athletes because jersey numbers are also carved in.

These poignant exhibits are just a few miles apart from each other and both were built to help a community remember those who perished in a catastrophic vehicle accident involving a high school basketball team.

THE ACCIDENT


Mainstream in the frigid ambiance of Eastern Canada, slushy snow is nothing unusual in mid-January. It’s part of the picturesque gilding spread across most parts of the country.

Frosty conditions around Bathurst, New Brunswick in the heart of winter, for instance, are like afternoon thunderstorms in the hub of July in Orlando, Florida.


Codey Branch

On their way back following a road game on Jan. 12, 2008 in Moncton – about 115 miles south from their hometown – the Bathurst High School boy’s basketball team had to contend with some hazardous road conditions.

As a result of a moderate snowstorm earlier in the day and some freezing rain later on, visibility that night was meager and streets were icy and treacherous.

The driver of the van, an E350 Ford Club Wagon, was also the team’s coach, Wayne Lord. There were 12 people total inside, including nine players and the coach’s wife and daughter.

It was shortly after midnight, Saturday, and parents of the teenagers were awaiting their arrival at a local McDonald’s in Bathurst. They couldn’t wait to hear about how their son’s did in the game.

Little did anyone know at that time, however, that curiosities about how many points Nathan Cleland scored or how many rebounds Javier Acevedo grabbed or how many assists Codey Branch accumulated would eventually become obsolete and insignificant.

Minutes away from safety and a jovial gathering between proud mothers and fathers and their aspiring sons, nobody could have predicted the calamity that would strike next.

As the 15-seat van approached the Bathurst border, Lord allegedly lost control of the vehicle and fishtailed on the slushy highway before slamming into a transport truck in the opposite lane.


Nickolas Quinn

The aftermath was overwhelming – eight dead, including seven players. The four others in the van and the driver of the Mack Truck were injured but survived.

THE BEREAVMENT


It was an ominous disposition for the small community of Bathurst the next day.

Despite many details still obscure and vaporous, family and friends had to endure such horrifying news.

Among the dead were Acevedo, Branch, Cleland, Justin Cormier, Daniel Hains (all 17 years old), Nickolas Quinn (16) and Nick Kelly (15). Also killed in the accident was the coach’s wife and teacher Elizabeth Lord (51).

Social media evolved into the foundation of spirit and remembrance for all those that knew the victims. YouTube videos were created to further honor their lives and accomplishments.

Mourners came by the thousands in the midst of another winter storm at the school’s arena to show their support.

“I walked seven kilometers in a snowstorm because I want to try and give comfort to these families,” local resident Lee Anne-Young told CBC News the day after the fatal accident.


Justin Cormier

One of the survivors from the crash, Bradd Arseneau, who suffered four broken ribs and a bruised lung, struggled to accept the previous night’s disaster but recalled the final, disheartening moments before being rescued by emergency assistance.

“When everything stopped, the only person I could see was Timmy (other teammate that survived) and he was praying. I was just calling out his name and reached out my hand and he took it and I just told him that I loved him,” Arseneau told CBC News shortly after the incident.

“My dad woke me up the next morning, tears in his eyes and he comes in my room and he says I got to tell you something,” said Rob Daley, twin brother of survivor Tim Daley.

“I got scared. First thing he says is that my brother is okay. He said Bradd Arseneau is okay, coach Lord is okay.”

“But then he told me seven of those guys, eight including the coach’s wife, didn’t make it. That’s when it hits you,” Daley added in an interview that can be found on YouTube.

“It was a dark, dark morning.”

WATCH HONORARY YOUTUBE VIDEOS: 1 | 2 | 3

THE CONTROVERSY


The throbbing from such misfortune was not easy to nurse.


Nathan Cleland

It had undeniably taken a toll on the entire community.

In the days, weeks and months following this sudden and disturbing disaster, there was plenty of solemn and plenty of tribute.

Memorials were built throughout the community and commemorative artwork was designed on the Bathurst High School’s web site and other online pages.

There were also plenty of questions and controversy.

After further investigation of the accident, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) reported that the van driving the basketball team would not have passed a safety inspection at the time of the accident because of corrosion, incompetent tires and defective brakes.

Driver fatigue and error was also cited as a possible reason for the collision, but it was also found that Lord was not speeding. He may have been weary, however, after working for 16 hours the day of the accident.

Officials also concluded that six of the dead were not wearing seat belts and the seventh was not properly restrained. Though, investigators also suggested that seat belts most likely would not have saved the victims’ lives.

Ana Acevedo and Isabelle Hains, two of the mothers who lost their sons in the accident, started up a campaign to try and prevent such tragedies from happening again.


Daniel Hains

Called Van Angels Law, Acevedo and Hains want drivers transporting student athletes to possess a Class 2 driver’s license and want a weather commandment implanted to prevent students from travelling in hazardous weather conditions.

“There is not even an answer why they were out in that kind of weather,” Acevedo said on her YouTube video devised to help people become more aware of this issue.

“Bus drivers who do that for a living should be driving the children to after-school activities, not class 4 drivers,” Haines said in the same video.

THE TRIUMPH


Nobody would have condemned Bathurst High School or any of its athletes if they chose not to compete in basketball for the next couple of years.

After such a tragedy, lacing up a pair of sneakers, running drills at practices and battling for rebounds in games would be irrefutably difficult to absorb.

But, with the kind of resolve that had disseminated throughout the community and with astonishing heart and determination from the hardwood heroes at the school, Bathurst would participate and achieve results beyond belief.

After the crash abruptly ended their season a year earlier, the Phantoms of Bathurst had a very patent goal in 2009. They wanted to succeed on behalf of their fallen teammates.


Elizabeth Lord

Arseneau, who was one of only four survivors from the accident, was a senior on the squad and chose to change his jersey number.

“I picked the number 7 for many reasons such as Nathan Cleland wore the number last year and he was a great athlete, like a third brother to our family,” Arseneau said during the taping of a Gatorade commercial in Toronto in March of 2009. “Also, seven boys passed in the accident so that’s another reason.”

It didn’t take long for Bathurst to demonstrate their remarkable fortitude. They ran up an extraordinary record of 35-3, including reeling off 26 consecutive victories heading into the provincial AA championship against Campobello.

Alan Douchet, who replaced Lord as the team’s head coach for this season, was not able to attend the championship game after he had collapsed at a recent practice. He was admitted into a hospital for tests that night, but was treated and released days later.

Though the heartbreaking accident from 13 months prior was not forgotten, the Phantoms offered their school and surrounding community something to celebrate on Feb. 21, 2009.

Led by Arseneau, who erupted for 25 points and earned MVP honors, Bathurst captured the provincial championship with a resounding 82-50 triumph over the Vikings.

“It was amazing,” Phantoms guard Alex Robichaud told CBC News after the game. “After the accident we didn’t think were going to get this far but we did.”

WATCH VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS FROM TITLE GAME>>>

Such a devastating tragedy eventually led to a heartwarming triumph. It was so inspirational that it encouraged a production company to create a made-for-TV movie about the aftermath of this terrible calamity.

Filming has already begun and it is expected to air some time next year.

BOYS IN RED FOUNDATION | VAN ANGELS


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Josh Cohen will be reporting on a variety of sports stories from throughout the world. Some stories may involve tragedies, while others may be about miraculous occurrences. Stay tuned to OrlandoMagic.com to read more about unique sports happenings from all over the globe.