Mother wants to know what happened
Margaret Snowball is returning to Perth, Australia with the ashes of her effervescent 25-year-old daughter Gemma.
But she’s going home without any answers on how the young woman, who had settled in New Westminster, was killed.
Margaret knows Gemma died after a vehicle struck her while crossing the intersection of Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue last Monday. What she doesn’t know is how such a tragedy happened.
Gemma’s coworkers at the Safeway at Royal City Centre say they heard that a Jeep driven by an elderly man made an illegal left turn about 10:30 p.m. before hitting Gemma. New Westminster police, however, won’t confirm any details about the collision because the information might have impact on potential witnesses or court proceedings.
“I really want to know how she died. They’re not saying anything,” said Margaret as she received condolences during a reception Tuesday at the Royal City Curling Club following a memorial earlier in the day in Queen’s Park.
At last Friday’s candlelight vigil for Gemma at Sixth and Sixth, Margaret couldn’t see any skid marks so she can’t figure out how a vehicle could build up enough speed to knock someone down and cause a fatal injury without skid marks. At least the driver stayed at the scene, she said.
“I can’t say how I feel about that person because I don’t know how it is my daughter died,” said Margaret. “They’re going to have to live with the death of my daughter for the rest of their lives, and I don’t mean that in a bitter way. I would not want to be that person.”
New Westminster Staff Sgt. Paul Hyland said the busy intersection, which doesn’t allow left turns except for buses, has not been problematic in the past.
“The traffic section advised it was not on their radar,” Hyland said in an email to the NewsLeader.
“That being said however, they are constantly reviewing stats and information on where the high collision intersections are, and given the fact that there was a fatality at that particular intersection they will be monitoring it.”
It hasn’t been high on the city’s radar either, with no red flags being raised by the data.
“One of the reasons we [don’t allow left turns] is because of the high volume of pedestrians crossing up there,” said city transportation infrastructure manager Roger Emanuels. “We’ve had requests from people to return left turns up there, but we’re reluctant to do that because of the high volumes and the delays that would happen on Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue. There’s not enough room to accommodate left-turn bays and parking.”
Margaret said Gemma first followed her heart to Canada a few years ago. But even though that relationship didn’t work out she had fallen in love with the country. She returned for a six-week vacation which convinced her it was the place she wanted to live, which she did in May 2011.
That decision didn’t bother Margaret, who was originally from England.
“I was so happy for her,” said Margaret. “It’s something she really, really wanted to do … You’ve got to let your kids go.”
The deBruyn family, John and Charlene, offered her a place to stay in New Westminster. They were used to out-of-town guests, having been a host family for international students. Gemma’s personality infected the deBruyns, their boarders, her coworkers and customers.
“You’d see her and her face would light up. People were drawn to her like a magnet,” said her mum.
Margaret and husband Graham Hudson, Gemma’s stepfather, came over for a visit late last summer, going on an Alaskan cruise. They ziplined, saw the Mendenhall Glacier and followed the trail of the Klondike Gold Rush riding the White Pass and Yukon Railway.
“Most people have Alaska on their bucket list of things to do before they die. Gemma’s done that, and she’s died,” said Margaret.
Margaret was at her job as an office manager in a radiology practice when John deBruyn called. She was too busy to answer, but almost immediately she got a text from him saying it was urgent.
“When I saw that I knew it was Gemma,” said Margaret. “My heart sank.”
When they did connect, she struggled to digest what she was being told. The doctor at Royal Columbian Hospital came on the line to give her the dire prognosis for her daughter who was on life support. He requested her organs be made available and she agreed. Margaret was sure Gemma would have wanted it that way. Her decision was validated when she picked up her daughter’s effects at the police station and found the donor designation on the back of her West Australia identification. Thirteen recipients benefited from Gemma’s donation.
Margaret was struck by the fact the 14-year-old son of her sister Anne Milburn was killed in an accident in England 22 years to the week Gemma lost her life. His organs were also donated for transplants.
After hearing the news, Margaret bought her ticket and she and Hudson went to tell Gemma’s sister Hannah.
“She was beside herself. How do you tell your daugther that her sister’s died. How do you do that? She was absolutely desolate.”
Then Margaret had to tell her own parents, who are in their 80s. Gemma and her grandmother had been extremely close. “They thought the sun shone out of Gemma. They were absolutely heartbroken.”
In addition to Friday’s vigil, about 150 people showed up for Tuesday’s service and reception. A mass celebration was also held at St. Theresa Parish in Burnaby on Wednesday evening. The outpouring of support in New Westminster, such as the donation collection and the trust fund set up by Gemma’s coworkers at Safeway, has been significant. The deBruyns have been a rock for her, said Margaret.
“They’ve both been so strong,” she said. “I can never ever repay them.”
The family is looking to put a bench in Queen’s Park in Gemma’s honour because it was one of her favourite places to walk. Margaret said some of the ashes are also being spread here so she’ll be in both places “so she will be here forever.”
Hannah, Hudson, Milburn and a paternal aunt from Connecticut also came to New Westminster. Gemma’s father was unable to make the trip because he’d just had surgery.
Margaret returns to Perth knowing she’s going to have to go through the emotional ride again when they hold a memorial in Australia.
Before turning in for the night, Margaret always made a point of giving Gemma a kiss and would say, “See you in the morning.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to go on without her.”
• A trust account has been established at the Westminster Savings branch at Sixth and Sixth—Snowball Trust Account No. 449214601. The customer service and deli departments at Safeway are also accepting donations.