Despite signage to the contrary, there has apparently been little effort to secure after-hours access to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)

Sooke River tragedy tinged by unanswered questions

Officials question why park gates left open

In the wake of the tragedy that took the lives of three Sooke men, questions are surfacing around the circumstances of their deaths and what can be done to prevent a similar tragedy in the future.

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and Anthony (A.J.) Jensen, all 20, died when their pickup truck was engulfed in water during unprecedented flooding near the lower parking lot of the Sooke Potholes on Jan. 31.

It’s believed the men went to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park late night to see the high water and were swept into the Sooke River.

RELATED: The story emerges

Now several community leaders are asking pointed questions.

In a letter to the B.C. Environment Ministry, Juan de Fuca Electoral Area director Mike Hicks questions why the gate to the lower parking lot was not closed Friday night, noting the Capital Regional District further up the road was closed by a contractor.

“It will become obvious that had the gate been closed to the lower parking lot, the three men would most likely be alive,” Hicks wrote.

“It is imperative, in my view, that this can never happen again. I would ask that you either lock the gate each evening or lock the gate when flooding is a concern.”

The provincial Parks website states all park gates are closed from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. That was not the case at the Sooke Potholes Park as the gate has been open for so long that bushes have sprouted in front of the gate.

RELATED : Other parks closed

Hicks sent the same letter along to local MLA and Premier John Horgan, adding Horgan had called him and assured him that his staff were working on the issue.

“I didn’t come up with this all by myself,” Hicks said.

“I wrote that letter after I spoke to people and got calls from people asking how this was allowed to happen and what was being done.”

RELATED: Community rallies

It’s a concern that Mayor Maja Tait has heard too.

“I think that [council] has generally been concerned with the park during the summer months when [Sooke] Fire Rescue staff has been out there performing rescues. Even though it’s provincial jurisdiction, it’s obvious that we have to look at the situation and see what more we can do to make the roadway leading into the park safer,” Tait said.

Some of those concerns have been expressed privately to the Sooke News Mirror by people close to the family.

The families have issued the following statement: “As the families of three boys in the accident, we are waiting for the full police report so that we can get a clear picture of what happened that night.”

That report may be some time in coming, as it is now in the hands of the B.C. Coroner’s Service, not police.

B.C. Coroner’s Service spokesman Andy Watson said any investigation of this kind could include recommendations that could prevent deaths in similar circumstances.

“We do that as a matter of course. We’ve done it for other accidents in the past — with whale-watching boats, for example,” Watson said.

“I can’t speculate on how long it will take for the investigation to be concluded or what might be included in that report.”

David Karn, speaking on behalf of Environment Minister George Heyman, delayed making any comment.

“We understand that the B.C. Coroner’s Service is investigating. It would be inappropriate for us to comment while the investigation is underway,” said Karn.

It’s a response that leaves Hicks cold.

“I told them that, if money is the problem, I’m sure that between the CRD, the District of Sooke and the province, we could find a way to close that gate during potential floods. We manage it for the CRD gate. Why couldn’t they do the same for theirs?” Hicks asked.

“It’s raining right now. What’s to prevent this from happening again?”



tim.collins@sookenewsmirror.com

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Sooke residents have raised questions regarding the after hours access to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. Three men died after entering the park after the time this gate should have been closed. (Kevin Laird - Sooke News Mirror)

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