We're talking about children here
|A scene from "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997).|
Suddenly, the driver loses control. She tries to straighten the vehicle, but instead swerves off the edge and trundles down an embankment. The man in the pickup pulls over and rushes over to see the bus fishtail out to the middle of frozen lake. It comes to a stop, then slowly sinks as the ice beneath it gives way.
This is the horrific central event in Atom Egoyan's 1997 film "The Sweet Hereafter." There are no special effects or explosions. Just the sickening vantage point from the road as the vehicle slowly submerges. When the witness rushes to the scene, we can hear the screams of children. Fourteen of them perish.
"It is typical of (Egoyan's) approach that 'The Sweet Hereafter' neither begins nor ends with the bus falling through the ice of a frozen lake, and is not really about how the accident happened, or who was to blame," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. "The accident is like the snow clouds, always there, cutting off the characters from the sun, a vast fact nobody can change."
The movie, he wrote, is more about the eternal grief of the "living dead" — those who survived or were most closely touched by the accident. It haunts the parents, the driver, the girl whose legs had to be amputated — even the class action lawyer handling the lawsuit seems uninterested in the money he's about to earn.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is based on a book by Russell Banks, which in turn was inspired by an actual accident in Texas that killed 21 kids. But it could easily have happened in any small town in North America, including Newfoundland and Labrador.
We're no strangers to tragic road accidents here. But school buses are in a category all their own. They are our golden chariots, safely ferrying our most precious cargo to and from school. We expect the utmost standards from their owners and drivers.
It is unfathomable, therefore, to think a contractor in this province would even consider compromising school bus safety for any reason. Yet that is exactly what a west coast firm was recently charged with.
C-MAC Construction has been charged with violating inspection regulations after allegations arose that certificates were issued without inspections actually taking place. In all, 16 buses were taken off the road.
It's the second time a school bus company has been charged since the province brought in tighter regulations last year.
"I think the system is working," school board representative Terry Hall told the CBC. "We are getting through, we are doing the inspections, we are removing buses that we feel need further work or shouldn't be carrying kids at that time."
This is encouraging. But does the punishment fit the crime?
What part of child safety do those behind these violations not understand? Is it that much of an inconvenience to check fuel and brake lines, to tighten a few nuts and bolts?
Can they not imagine the lasting legacy of grief their inaction could inflict on communities in this province?
It's frightening to think anyone could allow such negligence, but Hall admits there are companies out there that try to sneak under the radar.
The solution? Stiff fines. Permanent bans. Imprisonment. Anything to prevent the scenario envisioned in Egoyan's haunting film.
Our children — and their parents — deserve no less.