FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - A pastor and two members of his family who were killed in a horrific highway crash were remembered Sunday in sombre church services in Alberta and Newfoundland, where mourners were struggling to come to grips with the tragedy.
Shannon Wheaton, his wife Trena and their youngest son, Benjamin, were among seven people who died Friday in a head-on collision on Highway 63. The couple's oldest son, three-year-old Timothy, survived with only minor injuries.
Sunday service was anything but ordinary at Wheaton's church — the Family Christian Centre in Fort McMurray.
Some members of the congregation were in tears as they left the church. One member told reporters that they were trying their best to explain the tragedy to the children, but that it was difficult for the youngest ones to comprehend the tragedy.
Services were also held Sunday at churches in Newfoundland, where Wheaton was originally from.
"It's a tragedy for sure," said Willie Wheaton, an usher at the Pentecostal church in Carmanville, N.L., who is also a distant relative of Wheaton's.
In Wheaton's hometown — the tiny Newfoundland community of Frederickton — news of his death came as a terrible shock.
Edwina Wheaton, a Frederickton resident who is not a relative, said she read about the deadly crash on the Internet late Friday night. She didn't know who was killed, but immediately began to worry.
"I wondered if there were any Newfoundlanders involved because there's so many of them up there," said Wheaton, who remembered Shannon as a young boy. His parents still live in the community, she said.
In Fort McMurray, the church is providing grief counselling to its members.
The church's lead pastor, Rev. Edwin Rideout, said Wheaton joined his staff in 2010, but they previously worked together for five years with a congregation in Springdale, N.L..
"His passion for God, the church and community was exceptional," said the church's lead pastor, Rev. Edwin Rideout, in a statement about Wheaton that was posted on the church's website.
The wreck happened on a two-lane stretch of Highway 63 near Wandering River, between Edmonton and Fort McMurray. Police said a pickup truck going north pulled out to pass another vehicle, colliding with another pickup travelling south.
Six people were in one of the pickups, while three were in the truck that had tried to pass. Police had not identified the other victims of the crash as of late Sunday.
There have been several deadly crashes on the busy road linking Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Friday's tragedy has led to renewed calls for the province to fulfil its promise to twin the remaining two-lane sections of the highway.