VERCHERES, Quebec -- The congregation of St. Francis Xavier in the small farming community of Vercheres south of Montreal was in shock Saturday following the deaths of 17 elderly parishioners and two other people in a fiery traffic accident near the vacation area of Lac Ste. Jean.
The 17 were among 18 senior citizens in a minibus that collided head- on with a pickup truck around mid-day Friday on Highway 155 outside Lac Bouchette some 120 miles north of Quebec City.
Two people in the truck also died.
The crash sparked an explosion that engulfed both vehicles. Passers- by managed to pull two people from the tangled wreckage -- one from the bus and one from the truck -- before intense heat and smoke halted rescue efforts.
Police said many of the bus passengers were strapped into wheelchairs for the trip home from a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Anthony of Padua near La Bouchette. Reports from the scene said bodies and wheelchairs were scattered around the accident site for hours after the tragedy.
The pickup truck was carrying a family of foresters, police said.
The two crash survivors remained in grave condition Saturday. One was flown to a burn unit in a Montreal hospital while the other was kept in a hospital in Roberval on the south shore of Lac Ste. Jean.
The Toronto Sun newspaper said 16 Vercheres families lost relatives in the tragedy and that one family lost three sisters.
The Rev. Pierre Rivard, pastor of St. Francis parish, said all the victims were on an annual pilgrimage to the shrine. Their loss will 'leave a large hole in the church,' he said.
The traffic accident was Canada's worst since 1987 when 41 disabled people drowned when their vehicle plunged into a lake near the Quebec community of Eastman.