Sunday 25 September 2016

Five Britons killed in Canadian whale boat tragedy

Published 26/10/2015 | 01:41

Coast Guard crew arrive at a dock in Tofino, Canada, following a search and rescue operation (Chad Hipolit/The Canadian Press via AP)
Coast Guard crew arrive at a dock in Tofino, Canada, following a search and rescue operation (Chad Hipolit/The Canadian Press via AP)
A whale watching boat with 27 aboard has sunk off Vancouver Island

Five British nationals died when a whale watching boat with 27 people on board sank off Vancouver Island.

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One person is still missing and the rest were rescued, some by members of the local aboriginal community who rushed to the scene.

The vessel made a mayday call late on Sunday afternoon on a calm, clear and sunny day off the tourist community of Tofino - a popular destination for whale watchers, the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre said.

The cause of the sinking remains a mystery.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were UK 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," Mr Hammond said.

A search by the rescue agency staffed by Canadian military and Coast Guard personnel concluded late on Sunday with 21 rescued and one person missing, said Lt.-Cmdr Desmond James, a spokesman for rescue agency.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police will take over the search for the missing person.

Boats from the nearby Ahoushat First Nation arrived first on the scene, said aboriginal Councillor 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 water onto a boat.

The boat, the 20-metre Leviathan II, was partially submerged eight nautical miles west of Tofino.

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 Mr 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. We will continue to offer them support in the days ahead."

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

Canada's Transportation Safety Board said it was investigating the boat's sinking.

Mr Campbell described the condition of survivors. "Their looks tell the whole story," he said. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost - shocked and lost."

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

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

Mrs Simpson, who was in Tofino visiting a friend, 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," she said. "You could see it in their eyes."

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.

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.

Tofino fishing guide Lance Desilets said at least 12 rescue boats were already out on the water when he arrived 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," Mr Desilets said. "It's a sad day for our community."

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 Mr 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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