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‘He was my best friend’: Parents of teens killed in western Manitoba feeling the pain of fatal collision

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Dan Swintak didn’t just lose his only child in a tragic car crash in western Manitoba this week — he lost his best friend.

“He was downright a good kid, and I was very proud of him. I loved him very, very much,” Swintak said, his voice breaking, during a telephone interview on Friday.

“He was my best friend. He was my mini me. He was 18 years old, but he still was able to give his old man a hug.”

Chris Swintak was among four teens killed on Wednesday night, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, when his vehicle failed to stop at a stop sign as it travelled north on Provincial Road 274 into Gilbert Plains, about 30 kilometres west of Dauphin, and collided with a semi-trailer, RCMP say.

A teen boy wearing a suit and hat smiles and holds his hands up.
Chris Swintak had just picked a suit to wear to his high school graduation from Dauphin Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, his father says. (Submitted by Dan Swintak)

Two 17-year-old boys from the Dauphin area were also pronounced dead at the scene, while an 18-year-old woman from Carberry, Man., was pronounced dead in hospital, police said. A 15-year-old girl from Dauphin was taken to hospital with serious injuries, where she remains, RCMP said.

A Saskatoon man, 30, who was driving the semi was not physically injured, police said.

On Friday, people laid flowers and other items at a makeshift memorial at the site of the crash.

Just shy of graduation

Swintak said he and his son formed an inseparable bond over the years; Chris’s mother died when he was young.

“We would hang out together. We’d watch movies. We’d play crib, and we’d talk about everything from video games to girls to cars to you name it. I was proud to have a relationship like that with him,” he said.

Swintak remembers his son as someone who loved making people laugh and spending time with his rescue dog, Buddy.

A teenage boy sits on a chair and smiles as he pets his dog.
Chris Swintak was among four teens killed on Wednesday night, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, when his car crashed into a semi-trailer near the community of Gilbert Plains, Man. (Submitted by Dan Swintak)

The teen was also a warrant officer in his cadet group, and had just picked a suit to wear to his graduation from Dauphin Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, Swintak said.

Stephen Jaddock, superintendent of the area’s Mountain View School Division, said two of the other teens killed attended Gilbert Plains Collegiate. The girl in hospital is also a student in the division, and was in critical condition, the division said.

A white, blue and brick-faced school is surrounded by snow and to the left side there is a large tree and a flagpole.
Two of the teens who were killed in the crash went to Gilbert Plains Collegiate. The school opened Thursday and Friday to students, family and staff to offer supports to them. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

In response to the crash, the division opened the Gilbert Plains school on Thursday and Friday so people in the community could access support, including critical response members from the division and the community.

While he doesn’t quite know what comes next for him, Swintak said, he’s focused on what he can do in the present.

“I’m going to be here for Chris’s friends,” he said. “I’m going to be there to support anybody that needs [it].”

Teen just moved out

Alexandra Watt had just moved away from home to live in Dauphin a few days before she was killed in the crash, her father says.

The woman, 18, grew up in the town of Carberry, Man., about 150 kilometres southeast of Dauphin, and moved there last week, Gerald Watt said on Friday.

A Google Earth map shows Gilbert Plains and Winnipeg on a map.
Gilbert Plains is located about 275 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. (CBC)

“She loved her animals, her family animals. She loved her family, too,” Watt said during a brief telephone interview, adding his daughter also liked helping him at the community’s agriculture fair in the summertime.

“She had some very good friends in Carberry. She was also well-liked.”

‘It doesn’t seem real’

Cary Fillion, whose Gilbert Plains house is not far from the crash site, said his kids had friends over that night during spring break and heard what they thought was an explosion the night of the collision.

As word spread of what happened and who was involved, Fillion said his house began to fill with people waiting to learn more details. 

“We just sat there and waited to get a result, one by one, as the kids were pulled from the vehicle,” Fillion said.

“The girls were the first two to come out, and it was such relief and joy, you know, when we heard that … And I think we almost all kind of thought that maybe that’s what we were going to get, times five. And then obviously we didn’t get that news next.”

A makeshift roadside memorial at a highway intersection.
On Friday, people had laid flowers and other items at a makeshift memorial at the site of the crash. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Gilbert Plains has a population of roughly 1,400 people, Fillion said, and in an area of that size there’s “a sense of family” even among people who don’t usually spend much time together.

“I don’t even want to share and I don’t want to say how terrible it sounded at our house, with the kids and the parents and the agony and the pain,” he said.

Fillion said many in the community, including his own kids, are shaken by what happened.

“You hear people say that it doesn’t seem real, and it really doesn’t seem real. And that’s what stage we’re at, I think, because it’s so soon,” he said, adding there has been incredible support for people in the community.

“It’s tough, and that’s — I think that’s probably how it is for everybody involved.”