02/10/2012 08:52 EST | Updated 04/10/2012 05:12 EDT

Five family members killed in fiery B.C. crash between SUV and semi-trailer


WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - A newspaper employee and his family travelling to Vancouver to fulfil a lifelong dream to see an international tennis match were killed in a blazing crash with a semi-trailer, says a colleague of the man.

Colleen Sparrow, interim publisher of The Prince George Citizen, said on the paper's website the dead are Matt Altizer, 40, his wife Leah, their two children, Jonathan, a Grade 8 student and Emily, a Grade 6 student and an adult family member identified as Heather Kress.

Matt worked with the newspaper as an information-technology specialist, generating ideas and solving problems, Sparrow said in a separate interview, and Leah worked with Zellers.

She said the entire community has suffered a great loss.

"Everyone is replaceable, but I don't know that this guy is," she said. "His presence will absolutely be missed, not only on a professional level, but again for me a friendship level."

"Our team is suffering and so is his family. They're a very tight-knit family. His family and Leah's family and friends are very close."

The family was on its way to Vancouver to fulfil a lifelong dream of Altizer — to attend a Davis Cup international match this weekend between Canada and France.

The Thursday morning collision occurred outside the small B.C community of McLeese Lake, between Quesnel and Williams Lake. The crash sparked an intense blaze that reduced both vehicles to shells after burning for hours.

"We do know that the SUV crossed the centre line and collided with the semi," RCMP Corp. Madonna Saunderson. "The crash resulted in a fire, we're not sure what sparked the fire. We do know that both vehicles were engulfed in flames."

She said all five occupants of the SUV were killed on impact, and the driver of the tractor trailer was not injured but taken to a hospital in Williams Lake, B.C. as a precaution.

The roads were bare, the sky, cloudy and overcast, but Saunderson said police don't know why the SUV crossed the centre line.

Saunderson said a motorist who was driving behind the SUV told officers there was no indication the driver of the SUV was driving erratically or irresponsibly.

"For whatever reasons that aren't unknown and probably won't be known, it (the SUV) crossed right over into the semi," she said.

Greg Foster, a pub owner trying to organize a volunteer fire department in McLeese Lake, said he heard about the crash while listening to a police scanner.

He said debris was spread over an area of about 60 metres, the semi was sprawled half onto the north-bound lane and half into a ditch and the SUV was invisible, either trapped under the semi or in front of the semi and out of view of passersby, said Foster.

"The trailer had burned up," he said. "The truck was still on fire at that time, and like I say, the materials and that kind of stuff were just (scattered) all over the highway."

The air reeked of the smell of burning oil and tires, he added.

Foster said he didn't see any survivors but talked to a truck driver who was waiting in traffic and she told him the driver of the crashed truck was taken away from the scene in an ambulance.

Less fortunate were the occupants of the SUV, said Foster.

"There would have been no way they could have gotten out of that situation," he said.

Another crash occurred nearby three years ago, when a pickup truck and semi collided, killing two.

Foster said he's lived in the community for years and has never seen anything as bad as he saw Thursday.

"This is definitely the worst scene."

Barbara McClintock, a spokeswoman for the BC Coroners Service are in McLeese Lake, and there will be a coroners investigation.

Because the fire was so hot and so large and took so long to get under control, there are "problems with the scene," she said, and the coroners service will have to meet with police to decide their next course of action.

Sparrow said when she heard about the deaths, she was in a state of disbelief because she had worked Altizer for years.

Sparrow told her colleagues what happened and says the news was met shock and disbelief.

She said Altizer was a tennis enthusiast who designed a portable tennis net that could be removed from city courts when the weather turned bad and is now installed at the nearby university.

Sparrow said she worked with Leah on handing out scholarships the newspaper offers to employees and newspaper carriers.

"She would present all the potential (scholarships) and we would select them. Great lady."

"The citizen is a strong team and family. We're going to bond together and get through this and it's not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination but together we will all make it through this and be there for each other."

Earlier this week, a crash between a passenger van and a flat-bed truck killed 11 in Hampstead, Ont.

- by Keven Drews in Vancouver

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Lea Altizer worked at the school district. This version has been updated.