Jérôme Gamache felt a shiver down his spine when he heard his name called at the National Assembly of Québec, during a government ceremony on March 9, 2020.
Much like the droplets of icy water running from his hand to his neck while he was trying to get out of his truck filled with snow after he sent it in the ditch to avoid a collision with a school bus full of kids, two years before.
Gamache still has vivid memories of what happened on Jan. 16, 2018, in St-Eugène, about an hour east of Quebec City. It was roughly a quarter before noon and he had just collected a load of milk in his tanker trailer from a nearby farm and was on his way to the next.
Having started his day around 6 a.m., the tanker already had roughly 25,000 liters of liquid in it, about 70% of its capacity. “Just the right volume to make a good wave,” Gamache told Today’s Trucking, referring to the load shifting when changing gears or braking.
To compound matters, the rural range road was extremely slippery. “Salt must had been spread earlier in the morning but it had kept on raining and snowing, so it must had penetrated underneath the icy surface,” he says.
After he made a blind right-hand turn at the big rock surrounded by trees preceding what he knew was a soft but long downhill slope, he suddenly saw the flashing red lights of a school bus stopped at a distance he evaluates at “about four van lengths.”
Seconds feeling like eternity
With little control over his rig, Gamache only had split seconds to make a decision – and a move – that could save dozens of kids’ lives.
He couldn’t see any of them around the bus, so he didn’t know if everyone had already hopped inside or if the bus driver was waiting for more to climb aboard.
For a moment, the truck driver thought of circumventing the bus. “But I said to myself, ‘If kids are coming from the house, I’ll hit them’,” Gamache says.
“I said to myself, ‘If kids are coming from the house, I’ll hit them.'”– Jérôme Gamache
In a glimpse, he saw the bus starting to move forward but he already had made up his mind. He was now merely 100 feet away from the bus. “Maneuvering the steering wheel and gently applying the brakes, I directed my truck towards the ditch but the trailer lost grip first and hit the ditch. With the volume of milk I had aboard, it was quite a shock. The truck rolled over and fell on its passenger side.”
“I wanted to keep it on its wheels, but it just didn’t work out,” he says. “It was a violent stop, but it stopped.”
Still sitting in the driver’s seat because of his seat belt holding him in an otherwise awkward position, Gamache had the presence of mind to quickly turn the engine off to prevent a fire. The passenger side window had busted and snow had filled the cab.
When he unbuckled his seat belt, Gamache fell on the passenger door panel. He slowly made his way back to the top — the driver’s door — by gripping the steering wheel and driver’s seat armrest. But he still had to get out of the truck. “I put the key back in the ignition and rolled down the window. The driver’s side door hadn’t been damaged,” Gamache says.
When his head finally popped out, the truck driver could see his truck had stopped about 50 feet from where the school bus sat.
“Call my boss”
He could also hear a woman’s voice. It was Kim Thibault’s. The mother of three had witnessed the scene from her kitchen window after young Alyson, William and Samuel – 10, nine and five years old at the time – had headed for the school bus parked in front of her house.
“I had heard a ‘bang’ and rushed out of the house with the phone in my hand,” Thibault says. “I couldn’t see my children because they were already on the bus.” At the time she didn’t know that yet, but the school bus driver reassured her. “At that moment, I knew the kids were alright.”
“I saw the truck lying on its side,” she says. “I couldn’t see the driver at first.”
When Gamache finally emerged from the snowy cab, the first thing he asked was for her to call his boss to tell him what happened.
“I told him ‘No, out of the question. I’m with 911. Are you OK? Do you need an ambulance?’” Thibault says. “He told me ‘no, I’m fine’. He looked like he was totally in control.”
When we spoke to her, Thibault didn’t even know that the government had decorated the hero who crashed near her house to save the kids. But she couldn’t agree more.
“I’m so happy. He absolutely deserves it. Within a split second, he made the decision to put his life at risk rather than the children’s. All’s well that ends well,” she says.
Gamache got out of it only with bruises on the shoulder from the seatbelt locking.
And the kids are alright.
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