WITHROW, Alta. — Three young sisters were playing in their family’s loaded grain truck when they became trapped and suffocated in a dense pile of tiny canola seeds that experts say would have swallowed them like quicksand.
Thirteen-year-old Catie Bott, and 11-year-old twins Dara and Jana were buried around suppertime Tuesday during the busy harvest season on the farm near Withrow in west-central Alberta.
Their parents and neighbours worked furiously to free them from the truck and performed CPR, but two of the girls could not be revived. The third was taken by air ambulance to hospital in Edmonton, but she died overnight.
“Our kids died living life on the farm,” the parents said in a statement released Wednesday by RCMP. “It is a family farm. We do not regret raising and involving our kids … on our farm. It was our life.”
A family photo on Roger Bott’s Facebook page shows the three blond girls with their parents and brother sitting on some grass beside a farm truck, their faces glowing in the sun, as they have a picnic. Roger Bott is wearing a green T-shirt that reads “Born to Farm.”
The family is well-known and has roots in the area, said Ted Hickey, director of community and protective services with Clearwater County.
He rushed to the farm with other emergency workers to find the girls had already been pulled from the pile. People used shovels to free them but it took “extraordinary” effort, he said.
Their parents were in shock and relying on their Christian faith to help them, Hickey said.
“They were very stoic to the point of actually coming up to first responders and thanking them for all they did for their daughters.”
Sgt. Mike Numan, who teared up as he talked to reporters, said he couldn’t answer any questions about the accident. Exactly what happened is still under investigation.
“This is hitting all of us very hard,” he said. “Front-line responders are routinely called out to sad situations, but things are always harder for everyone when kids are involved.”
No one at the farm wanted to talk Wednesday. Metal grain bins, augers and a tractor could be seen in the yard but there was no sign of the truck.
Canola is a plant with a bright-yellow flower in the same family as cauliflower and cabbage. When crushed, the fine seeds produce oil that is used in everything from margarine to biodiesel.
Glen Blahey, an agricultural safety and health expert with the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, said a load of seed acts like quicksand. It only takes seconds for a person to become trapped and a few minutes to suffocate.
He called for more education about the danger.
“I don’t mean to criticize the parents of those three children that were lost but, at the same time, as caregivers we’re responsible to protect them,” Blahey said.
Tammy Alexander is a family friend who had the Bott children over for piano lessons on Tuesday afternoons when they were finished with morning home-school sessions.
The oldest, Catie, was always carrying a book and loved reading to Alexander’s four children, she said. Dara was outgoing and a quick learner. Jana, who loved making crafts and baking, was a kind spirit.
“At church functions … she was always setting up tables and she was just always very helpful.”
Alexander said the girls were avid curlers and swimmers and played softball. When their families got together, they all played cards and board games.
Brad Volkman, superintendent of the Wildrose School Division, said the children stopped attending public school in nearby Condor two years ago, but still attended Christmas concerts and brought in baking for staff and students.
Pastor Brian Allan of the Withrow Gospel Mission said Roger Bott is a worship leader at the church. Neighbours of the family will be helping them finish harvest.
“There are guys down there working around the farm right now, cleaning things up and just trying to get things back to some sense to normal,” he said.
— With files from John Cotter and Chris Purdy in Edmonton.
Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press