British Columbia

Tofino whale-watching accident: Responders describe grim search for survivors

Those involved in Sunday's rescue and recovery of passengers from a stricken whale-watching boat say dozens of vessels rushed to the scene when the mayday call went out.

'It was awful. I woke up this morning with a sort of empty feeling in your gut.'

5 people dead, 1 missing after whale-watching boat capsizes in B.C. 0:48

Rescuers who came to the aid of the victims of a capsized whale-watching boat near Tofino, B.C., say it's something they'll never forget.

"There was one guy who was saying, 'My wife! My wife! She doesn't know how to swim!'" said Peter Frank Jr.

"Some of them, when they hopped on the boat, it was just a sense of relief … I did my best to reassure them, to tell them they're OK."

Those involved in Sunday's rescue and recovery effort say dozens of boats rushed to the scene after learning the vessel was in distress.

Twenty-seven people were on board the MV Leviathan II when it sank on Sunday afternoon off the west coast of Vancouver Island. Five died, all British citizens, one of which lived in B.C. while another lived in Ontario. An Australian man is still missing.

Clarence Smith was one of the first to arrive at the sinking vessel. He said only some of the survivors in the water were wearing life jackets when he arrived.

"We went to get the people in the water first, three of them. One guy was clinging on to the boat. We picked him up first. And then I heard these voices in the water — two ladies clinging to each other about 100 feet away from us. So we went and picked them up," said Smith.

"Then I could hear people towards the rocks. So we went to the life raft and picked up another 10 people out of there and put them in my boat."

Shawn Heise describes the search, rescue and recovery of victims of the MV Leviathan sinking. 1:15

Francis Campbell, who was driving a water taxi with his wife and two passengers onboard, was second on the scene. Together they pulled eight survivors from the water and rushed them back to Tofino to get warmed up.

"It's something you really can't describe. It's going to be held with me for the rest of my life," he said.

Private boats helped coast guard

Shawn Heise, who cut short a sport fishing trip when he heard a garbled call for help on the radio, said it was a strange sight to find the ship half-sunk when he arrived.

"There was only 20 feet of it sticking out of the water and it looked like it was standing on end. I don't know how it got in that position — kind of a disturbing sight," he said.

He was assigned by the coast guard to clear the water of debris to increase visibility for searchers.

"We pulled up some clothing, a running shoe, a purse, some money floating around, whatever we could see," he said.

Clarence Smith was first on the scene with his small fishing boat. He said some of those rescued were wearing life jackets, like the one he is holding, but some were not. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"There was dozens of boats, I'd say 24 to 36 boats, mostly charter boats and some commercial fishing boats out there searching, with the coast guard co-ordinating everything," said Heise.

Members of the Ahousaht First Nation also responded.

"As soon as our boats had heard of the accident our guys and our boats went out to assist," said Chief Greg Louie.

"When they got there they assisted with helping people out of the water. And one of the boats, one of our boats, had transported some deceased."

Hit hard by tragedy

In a community as small as Tofino, which has about 1,800 residents, it was difficult to avoid evidence of the grim task at hand.

"There was about three ambulances down at the dock, I think that's pretty much all of Tofino's resources," said Rami Touffahah, who watched the recovery effort unfold from shore.

Francis Campbell was driving a water taxi with his wife and two passengers when they were second to arrive on the scene. They pulled eight survivors onto the seven-metre boat before taking them to Tofino. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

After the frantic search for survivors, the weight of what has happened is setting in for those who assisted.

"It was awful. I woke up this morning with a sort of empty feeling in your gut. Hoping that there's more survivors," said Heise.

Louie wasn't in the Ahousaht boats that were part of the recovery effort, but he could sense the tragedy's impact on those who were.

"I spoke with one of our community members, you could really feel the sadness in the air, this person I talked to said 'I feel like crying.'"

A community pot luck will be held Monday night for anyone affected by the tragedy.

Water taxi owner Tom Campbell, left, who was involved in the rescue of eight people on Sunday, heads back out Monday morning to help with the recovery operation. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

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