5 Britons dead in whale-watching tragedy; 1 missing
Published Monday, October 26, 2015 8:00AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, October 26, 2015 10:30PM EDT
The owner of a whale-watching boat that capsized Sunday off the coast of Vancouver Island, killing at least five people, says he can’t explain what happened. But he says the scenario is “totally different” from another deadly incident involving his company in 1998.
Jamie Bray, owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station, told a news conference in Tofino, B.C., Monday that the Leviathan II “has done this exact same trip for 20 years, twice a day.” He also said the skipper had 20 years of experience, with the deck hands having three and five years’ experience.
Bray was asked about the fact that this was not the first fatal accident involving one of the company’s boats. In 1998, the captain of the Ocean Thunder and a 27-year-old German tourist were killed when they were thrown into the water near the Plover Reefs, not far from where Sunday’s accident occurred.
Bray said the Ocean Thunder incident happened in a Zodiac, which is “a totally different type of vessel.”
“(The Zodiac) was struck by a rogue wave and the passengers were thrown out, but it’s a totally different scenario as far as the vessels are concerned,” he said. “The Leviathan (is) 20 metres; it’s significantly larger.”
Bray said there were more than 50 adult and 20 children’s life-jackets on board the Leviathan II, but passengers were not required to wear them.
“In the event of a sinking, it would be very difficult to exit a vessel when you’re being held up onto the ceiling or the deck with a lifejacket on,” he said.
The weather was mostly clear on Sunday afternoon, leading some to theorize the vessel tipped after striking rocks.
TSB investigation launched
Bray said the company has “guidelines” for dealing with “close encounters with rocks and also with wildlife.” He said he’s seen “no indications yesterday that would say it was any different than any other tour that happens in either the spring or the fall.”
“We just don’t understand it and we won’t know the answers until the Transportation Safety Board finishes their investigation,” Bray said.
Marc-Andre Poisson, director of Marine Investigations for the Transportation Safety Board, later told reporters it is “much too early” to pinpoint the causes and contributing factors of the accident.
Poisson said the ship had 24 passengers and three crewmembers on board when it experienced “problems around 3:45 p.m.”
He and four other TSB investors are in Tofino conducting an investigation that will include interviews, maintenance histories, meteorological data and operational policies.
The investigation will “take time to complete,” he added. “However, should the investigation team uncover safety deficiencies that present an immediate risk, the (TSB) will communicate them without delay.”
Michael Miller, a rescuer with the Red Cross, said he thinks Transport Canada should require passengers to wear life-jackets on such vessels. “It’s not a big change,” he said. “We already have jackets onboard.”
The BC Coroners Service said Monday that the victims were four men and one woman ranging in age between 18 and 76.
Three of them were tourists from Britain, while the other two were residing in Canada while retaining their British citizenship. The female victim was residing in B.C., while one of the male victims was living in Ontario.
The coroner’s office said more information will be released once next of kin has been notified.
RCMP dive teams and several boats, including from the nearby Ahousaht Frist Nation, continued to search one remaining missing person on Monday.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said they were “providing consular assistance to the family of an Australian man reported missing following the sinking of a whale-watching boat in Canada.”
Corene Inoye, director of operations for Jamie’s Whaling Station, spoke alongside Bray Monday, recounting Sunday’s events.
She said the Leviathan II was nearing the end of a regularly scheduled whale-watching trip, making a stop at Plover Reef when the accident occurred.
“To the best of our knowledge, there was no distress call,” she said. “It appears that the incident happened so quickly the crew didn’t have an opportunity to send out a mayday.
“The crew was able to access emergency flares that are part of the safety equipment on the boat and deployed them from the water,” Inoye added.
“Local First Nations fishermen were the first to see this and rushed to the scene to come to the assistance of our passengers and crew.”
She thanked all of the people who helped in the search and rescue.
Fisherman first on the scene
Fisherman Clarence Smith saw the flares and was the first to respond, managing to help pull 13 people from the water.
Francis Campbell arrived minutes later and helped rescue eight people, but he said he was “helpless” to save the remaining few.
“I tried running to the back to pull them aboard,” he said. “But I had to man the wheel, too, just to keep our safety."
Lt. Paul Trenholm of the Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre said the quick response from nearby boats saved lives.
“Without the collaborative effort of the people that were living nearby, rendering assistance, this could have been much worse,” he told CTV News Channel Monday.
Sheila Simpson was strolling on the Tofino dock with her husband when rescue boats roared up carrying people from the whale-watching vessel. She told The Canadian Press she managed to comfort some of the survivors as they stood on the dock awaiting transport to hospital.
"They were in absolute shock," she said. "You could see it in their eyes. ‘This didn't happen. We came on a holiday.’"
Alec Dick, the emergency coordinator for the Ahousaht First Nation, told CTV News Vancouver that he was surprised to hear of a 20-metre vessel capsizing, saying that in all his years of responding to marine emergencies, he had never heard of a boat that large flipping over.
Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said the local tourism industry is well-regulated and she’s “confident” that the boats operated by Jamie’s Whaling Station have been regularly inspected.
Right now, “the community of Tofino is very much focused on the passengers and survivors,” Osborne said, adding that counselling services will be offered to those affected.
With files from CTV Vancouver and The Canadian Press