In Maple Ridge, they won’t be hurting anyone tonight

Volunteer for Operation Red Nose doesn't want to see a replay of tragedy from long time ago

Juanita Blades displays newspaper articles and photos of the deadly collision in 1975

Juanita Blades displays newspaper articles and photos of the deadly collision in 1975

In a scrapbook Juanita Blades keeps at home are the yellowed pages of how, on a warm Tuesday evening 37 years ago, a drunk driver changed her life.

It was late at night on July 15, 1975, when Blades, then 31, was driving home with her three children.

Now 68, Blades is determined to do her small part to make sure her story isn’t played out again,

Starting Friday, Nov. 30, Blades will spend weekends answering calls from people in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows who are too drunk to drive and need a safe ride home.

She’s again a volunteer with Operation Red Nose, entering its third year in Maple Ridge.

If only such a service existed all those years ago.

As Blades and her children travelled back to Richmond after visiting an aunt in Nakusp, they wound their way along Highway 3, about 12 kilometers east of Princeton. Shortly before 10 p.m., Blades noticed a car heading in her direction, driving erratically. She was fortunate enough to swerve to the gravel shoulder as an oncoming car hurtled recklessly across the yellow line into oncoming traffic. Blades’ car was hit on the front driver-side headlight, sending the car to a sudden stop along a roadside ditch.

She was lucky.

Those in the car behind her were not.

“You never think anything like this will happen to you,” Blades says. “But it happens in the blink of an eye.”

The tattered pages of her scrapbook recount the death  of 11 people who died along the desolate stretch of highway that fateful night.

The accident, believed to be the worst traffic fatality in the province at the time, claimed the lives of a Richmond family making their way home from holidays: Peter Klassen and his wife Lillian, along with their six children –  Cheryl Ann, 17, Leslie, 15, Janice, 14, Eileen, 12, Randolph, eight, and Terri-Lyn, 3.

All perished after the oncoming vehicle T-boned the Klassen’s car, trapping the victims inside as their station wagon erupted into flames.

Three of the four people in the car that was responsible for the accident also perished in the crash.

Tom Graham, a 24-year-old from Princeton who was driving the car, died, along with passengers Leonard Nyman, 24, and his brother, Norman, 23, of 100 Mile House.

Richard Salter, a 23-year-old from Princeton who was in the car with Graham, was the only other person in the accident to survive.

Blades, who lives in Maple Ridge now, says she often wonders how justice would have played out for the driver, had he lived.

From the tragedy to today, Blades says she thinks harsher penalties for drunk drivers involved in the death of another driver should trigger an automatic minimum sentence of five years.

But all too often, Blades feels guilty drunk drivers too often only get a slap on the wrist.

“My biggest problem is with the court system. We have too may plea bargains on theses open-and-shut cases.”

While Blades can only hope for changes to the court system, she can help make the roads safer this holiday season.

This is her second year answering calls for Operation Red Nose, the mandate of which is to ensure holiday revelers, and their cars, get home safely.

A party of three Red Nose volunteers responds to each call, one to drive the customer’s car home, another to navigate, the other to drive the return vehicle back to Red Nose headquarters.

In return for a donation, customers arrive home safely, and conveniently have their vehicle parked in the driveway.

The program runs each Friday and Saturday night through the Christmas holiday season and concludes New Year’s Eve.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of calls we had coming in from young people,” last year, Blades says, noting how public awareness on the issue of drinking and driving has improved since 1975.

“It’s so nice to see. When I take the calls, I say to myself, ‘at least they won’t be hurting anyone tonight.’”

Blades mentions that those using the Operation Red Nose service are always appreciative.

“It’s pretty simple. Just hand over your keys if you’re heading out and going to be drinking.”

Operation Red Nose manager Linda Palm says the key to the program’s success is having dedicated volunteers like Blades give their time at this busy time of the year.

“It’s important that, as the program grows, we can attract people like Juanita who are very passionate about the issue and speak so highly of what we do.

“We’re only as good as our volunteers.”

Palm added that it’s also important to enough donations are received to continue the program. While it is a free service, Operation Red Nose relies on the good will of those that use the service.

This year, the program has extended to Burnaby and New Westminster. It now stretches from Agassiz to West Vancouver.

Last year, Maple Ridge saw an increase of almost 17 per cent in the number of rides given, to 430.

The number of volunteers also increased, to 283, up front 197 in 2010.

Palm says the program is not just for those who’ve had too much to drink, but for anyone who might not be comfortable driving at night, whether because of road conditions or being tired.

Reduce the risk, a sentiment Blades reiterates.

Her oldest daughter was 13 at the time of the tragic accident. Still, she didn’t learn from it as one would expect.

“I thought, my kids will never drink and drive,” Blades says.

But only a month after she turned 16, Blades’ daughter was hit with a 24-hour roadside suspension.

Later, she was nabbed again, this time incurring a one-year penalty.

Blades says her daughter is fortunate to have not injured herself, or worse, anyone else.

“I know she’s learnt her lesson,” now. “I hope others will, too.”

Especially young drivers.

That demographic is most risk, Blades says.

If they could just see her scrapbook the page with the black-and-white photo of eight coffins lined up in a row, each one larger than the next.

In the background are the faces of heartbroken family, friends, of a community.

“A picture says so much.”


Operation Red Nose

To volunteer for Operation Red Nose, call 604-515-NOSE (6673). Application are available at the local RCMP office.

To book a ride call 604-515-6673 or 1-877-604-NOSE. This year the service will be in operation between 9 p.m. until 3 a.m. on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, and Dec. 7-8, 14-15, 21-22, and 31.

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