"I'm just very, very glad that everybody turned out to be relatively OK," Vince MacKenzie of the Grand Falls-Windsor fire department said Friday.
The call came in at 10:17 p.m. Thursday and was unlike anything he'd handled in his three-decade career.
A team of young synchronized skaters, their coaches and parents were recovering Friday after their bus slid off the icy Trans-Canada Highway and flipped on its side just west of the central Newfoundland town.
Police said the frightening mishap caused no life-threatening injuries, but more than 30 people were assessed in hospital.
A spokesman for provincial Health Minister Steve Kent confirmed that two patients were airlifted to St. John's, while three others were still in a local hospital Friday for minor injuries. Hugh Donnan said no other details were being released for privacy reasons.
MacKenzie said the DRL bus had veered off the highway and flipped on its side about two kilometres west of Grand Falls-Windsor.
There were 55 people on board including the driver. Passengers included about 40 young skaters aged 8 to 18 from the Silver Blades club in Corner Brook who were heading to the provincial synchronized skating championships in Clarenville.
DRL manager Jason Roberts said the male bus driver is careful, steady and has 30 years of experience. The driver has worked for the company for five years.
"He said, 'I can't believe it happened,' " Roberts said Friday in an interview. The driver was treated for a sore back in hospital and released, he added.
Roberts said the bus trip was changed from early Friday to leave Thursday from Corner Brook at about 5 p.m. local time to avoid coming weather. Drivers are encouraged to pull over when conditions or visibility deteriorate, he said.
The driver told him that snow suddenly turned to rain before slush caught the bus wheels just before the accident, Roberts said.
The company's last incident was more than a decade and 18 million kilometres ago when high winds blew a bus into a ditch. There were no major injuries, he said.
Bev Power of Skate Canada Newfoundland and Labrador said they decided to make the six-hour trip Thursday night to avoid even worse weather expected early Friday.
"People are on their way to recovering," she said of the ordeal that was supposed to be the start of a fun competition.
MacKenzie said about 20 people, including children as young as six, were standing near the bus when he arrived at the scene.
"Some of these children had no shoes, were standing on the icy road, and of course some of the people were bleeding."
MacKenzie said there were some suspected broken bones and possible back injuries as responders worked to get the rest of the passengers out.
The injured were taken to hospital at the Central Newfoundland Regional Health Centre, about four kilometres away, within about 40 minutes, he added.
"From a mass casualty point of view, this is the worst incident in my 32-year career that I've ever seen."
—By Sue Bailey in St. John's, N.L.