Canadian officials: Whale vessel sinks; 5 dead, 21 rescued

Posted at 7:38 AM, Oct 26, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-26 13:45:21-04

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — Five British nationals died when a whale watching boat with 27 people on board sank off Vancouver Island, the British Foreign Minister said Monday. One person was missing and the rest were rescued, some by members of the local aboriginal community who rushed to help.

The cause of the sinking remained a mystery. The boat made a mayday call late Sunday afternoon on a calm, clear and sunny day off Tofino, a popular destination for whale watchers, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said.

Government investigators were not expected to arrive until Monday afternoon in Tofino, a remote community of about 2,000 people at the very tip of a peninsula some 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Jamie Bray, the owner of the company that operates the boat, said he is cooperating with investigators to determine what happened.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were U.K. nationals. He said consular officials in British Columbia were supporting family members of those who died.

"My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident," Hammond said.

Barbara McLintock, a coroner's spokeswoman, said four men and one woman died and their ages ranged from 18 to 76. She said two of them were residents of Canada. Their names were not released.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent an underwater recovery team to search for the missing person, with assistance from the Coast Guard and local search and rescue personnel.

The other 21 people aboard the boat were rescued Sunday.

Boats from the nearby Ahoushat First Nation arrived first on the scene, said aboriginal Councilor Tom Campbell. He was on the waterfront and watched as rescuers brought several survivors ashore. He said his cousin pulled at least eight people from the cold water onto a boat.

"Their looks tell the whole story," he said by phone from Tofino. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost."

The boat, the 20-meter (65-foot) Leviathan II, was partially submerged 8 nautical miles (12 nautical kilometers) west of Tofino.

Fishing guide Lance Desilets said at least 12 rescue boats were already out on the water when he arrived Sunday afternoon to respond to the call for help.

"I saw a lot of personal belongings, a long diesel slick and the top 10 feet of the Leviathan II sticking out of the water," Desilets said. "It's a sad day for our community."

Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau thanked all those who participated in the rescue effort and offered his condolences to the victims and their families.

"I know firsthand of this coastal area's natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world," said Trudeau, who won Canada's national elections last week. "My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time."

Sheila Simpson said she was strolling on the dock with her husband when rescue boats roared up carrying people from the distressed vessel.

"One didn't make it," said Simpson about a man whose body was covered by a blanket.

Simpson, who was in Tofino visiting a friend at the local hospital, said she tried to comfort some of the survivors as they stood on the dock awaiting transport to hospital or to their hotels.

"They were in absolute shock," said Simpson. "You could see it in their eyes."

Many of the survivors were taken to Tofino General Hospital and some were discharged Sunday night, said Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

Tofino's mayor commended residents for their quick aid in the rescue effort.

"Everybody's heart is just breaking for what's going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible," Josie Osborne said in a telephone interview late Sunday.

Bray, the owner of Jamie's Whaling Station that operates the boat, said his team is heartbroken and doing everything possible to assist the passengers and staff.

"We are cooperating with investigators to determine exactly what happened," he said in a statement on the company website. "In the meantime, we want to extend our most sincere thank you to the first responders, rescue personnel, and everyone from Tofino and the local First Nations communities who assisted with the response efforts."

It wasn't the first fatal accident on the whale watching company's record. In 1998 one of its vessels capsized during an excursion, sending all four people on board into the water. The operator and a passenger died.

Joe Martin, a member of the Tal-o-qui-aht tribe, was near the dock when rescue boats went out.

The ship was on the far side of Vargas Island in Clayoquot Sound, an area that Martin said can get really rough, but was not on Sunday.

"It wasn't even blowing hard," he said. "This is the largest boat in Tofino and I was really surprised that it went down."

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