Church bells are to ring today in Humboldt at the same time as the deadly bus crash brought unimaginable tragedy to the small Saskatchewan city five years ago.
The bells at St. Augustine Church are to toll 29 times — one for each person who was on the bus carrying the Humboldt Broncos on April 6, 2018. Sixteen people died and 13 were injured after a transport truck went through a stop sign and into the path of a bus carrying the Saskatchewan junior hockey team.
Celeste Leray-Leicht, who is part of the planning committee, said she feels better any time she can honour her son. Jacob Leicht was 19 years old when he was killed in the crash.
“He's part of everything we say and do and guiding us along the way," Leray-Leicht said.
For the anniversary, the city and members of the Broncos families have organized a tribute service at the Elgar Petersen Arena for people who wish to pay their respects. The rink is the home of the Broncos and is filled with mementoes, banners and photos.
The tribute will include videos and photos that families of the Broncos have contributed over the years.
Mayor Michael Behiel has proclaimed it “2017-18 Humboldt Broncos Day” and encouraged people to take a moment of silence as the bells echo around 4:50 p.m., the approximate time the crash occurred five years ago.
Organizers and the community didn't want the tribute to feel like another funeral, but they also wanted to honour those affected, Leray-Leicht said.
It is a difficult day for families and surviving players, she said. Many take the time to be at home with their loved ones and want privacy.
“Especially this week, I still feel this weight in my chest of sadness,” she said.
Leray-Leicht said over the years, she has been learning to navigate trauma and immense grief. There is guilt about not doing enough to honour her son and the others on the bus. There’s anger over what happened and things she cannot control.
There’s also levity, Leray-Leicht said, especially from the students at the school where she is a vice-principal. The students’ honesty and innocence have been especially helpful, Leray-Leicht said, even if they didn’t know they were helping.
The continued support from people in Humboldt has also been important.
"My community is my extended family,” she said. "I am only as strong as the people who are lifting me up."
Those affected by the crash have also become family, she added, but most don’t live in Humboldt. The handful who do are extremely close, Leray-Leicht said, and work together in different ways to honour their children.
"There's healing in that, too," she said.
The planning committee for the tribute included Carol Brons, whose 24-year-old daughter, Dayna Brons, was the team's athletic therapist, and Marilyn Hay, whose 29-year-old son, Tyler Bieber, was the team’s play-by-play announcer. They were both killed in the crash.
Chris Beaudry is also on the committee. He was the Humboldt Broncos assistant coach, who was not on the bus but was travelling in a vehicle behind it and was one of the first people on the scene of the crash.
Leray-Leicht said they are “deeply touched and honoured” that people continue to want to pay tribute to the Humboldt Broncos.
Her son was funny, played pranks and had a dry sense of humour. He was a gritty kid who worked hard, she said, and he was a wonderful son. Jacob Leicht was so much more than his death, she added.
The way the country and world reached out after the Broncos tragedy shows how empathetic and understanding people can be, she added. And the best way to honour the team is for people to bring that kindness to their everyday lives, she said.
“The way to honour them is to put your best foot forward every single day.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2023.