A Fort McMurray pastor, his wife and son have been identified as three of the seven victims killed in a devastating head-on collision in northeastern Alberta, and his other son is one of only two survivors.
Rev. Edwin Rideout of Family Christian Centre says Shannon Wheaton, his wife Trena, and their youngest son, Benjamin, all perished in Friday's crash between two pickups on Highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray.
"[Wheaton]was one of the most gentle and generous individuals I have ever known," Rev. Rideout wrote in an e-mail to The Canadian Press. "I considered him My Son in ministry."
Rev. Rideout said the couple's eldest son, Timothy, survived with minor injuries.
The crash occurred on Friday afternoon near Wandering River at the kilometre marker 88 on Highway 63, about 250 kilometres north of Edmonton.
A northbound pickup truck carrying three people pulled out to pass another vehicle and collided with a southbound pickup truck carrying six people, RCMP Constable Christina Wilkins said, citing preliminary reports.
Mr. Wheaton, originally from Frederickton, Nfld., was the family ministries pastor at FCC in Fort McMurray and was a 2001 graduate of Eastern Pentecostal Bible College.
A special service will be held at FCC Sunday at 11:30 a.m.
Timothy and the other survivor, a 28-year-old man, were airlifted to an Edmonton hospital. The man remained there Saturday in serious condition.
Six of the nine people involved died at the scene, and the seventh – a teenage girl – died Friday night after being airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. Passing motorists had pulled her from a burning vehicle before emergency vehicles arrived.
The identities and hometowns of the other dead and injured had not yet been released as authorities were still notifying family members, but police did say dead include a man and a woman aged 34, a 28-year-old woman, an 11 year-old girl and a 2-year-old boy. Details on the other two killed was not released.
The highway is notorious for heavy traffic and police had advised drivers to stay off highways south of Fort McMurray because of reduced visibility and heavy snowfall.
Highway 63 reopened to traffic late Friday evening, after being closed for about eight hours following the crash.
The busy stretch is notorious for being one of Alberta's deadliest. The highway has claimed the lives of at least 71 people and hundreds more have been injured between 2001 and 2009.
In 2006, after years of lobbying and public pressure, the province promised to twin the highly travelled 240-kilometre stretch of the highway up to Fort McMurray. As of October, 2009, only 16 kilometres had been twinned, adding an extra lane in each direction.
A government spokesperson said another 36 kilometres will be twinned by fall of 2013.
The highway was an issue in the recent election in the province, in which the incumbent Progressive Conservative party beat the upstart Wildrose Party.
"Should of voted Wildrose … they wanted to twin it, " Derrick (Duke) Godin commented on Facebook page.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith had promised to fast-track the twinning of Highway 63, making it a priority.
Progress to finish twinning the roads has been slow and Wildrose candidates raised it to criticize the PCs during the election.
"It's a priority. It's critical. How many more lives must be lost before we widen that highway?" Fort McMurray-Conklin Wildrose candidate asked Doug Faulkner in an interview with the Calgary Herald before the election. Mr. Faulkner served as the area's mayor from 1997 to 2004.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford had also promised to make the twinning of Highway 63 a priority.
With a report from The Canadian Press