British Columbia·CBC Investigates

'How many more have to die?' 9 years after float plane tragedy, widower still waiting for new safety rules

The head of the Transportation Safety Board says she's very concerned that Transport Canada still hasn't implemented new safety regulations for seaplanes nine years after a crash in B.C. claimed six lives.

Documents reveal industry fought 'prohibitive cost' of safety recommendations

Six people drowned following a float plane crash off the coast of Saturna Island in 2009. Only the pilot and one other passenger survived. Following the tragedy, the Transportation Safety Board recommended all seaplanes be retrofitted with 'rapid emergency exits' and that all passengers be required to wear personal flotation devices during flights. (CBC )

Exactly nine years and counting.

That's how long survivors of a deadly plane crash in B.C. have been waiting for safety improvements in the country's seaplane industry — improvements they believe would have saved lives in their accident, and in subsequent similar crashes across Canada.

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB), which investigates air crashes and made a pair of safety recommendations in 2011, agrees.

It criticizes Transport Canada, the industry regulator, for "slow progress" in addressing safety concerns.

"Let's get on with it," said TSB chair Kathy Fox.

The tail section of a float plane is visible as the wreckage is lifted from the waters of Lyall Harbour on Dec. 1, 2009. (Canadian Press)

She says while the majority of seaplane passengers survive the initial crash on water, 50 per cent then die from drowning.

The outcome was even worse in that fatal crash nine years ago.

Deadly lessons

On Nov. 29, 2009, a de Havilland Beaver float plane owned by Seair Seaplanes took off from Lyall Harbour on Saturna Island, bound for Vancouver.

Within seconds, it stalled and plunged into the sea. Everyone on board survived the impact, but only two escaped the sinking plane.

The other six, including a mother and her baby, were trapped inside and drowned.

In the wake of the Saturna tragedy, TSB investigators recommended rapid emergency exits, such as pop-out windows, be mandatory in the country's more than 700 commercial seaplanes.

The TSB also recommended personal flotation devices (PFDs) be worn by all passengers during flights, rather than stowed under seats.

'I used to be angry… Now I'm just sad'

A small support group that formed after the Saturna crash knows first-hand what's at stake.

Most of the seats around Barbara Glenn's dining room table in Surrey, B.C., sit empty.

"I really believe that the majority of people on that plane would be here alive today," Glenn said. "Our table would be full."

Fellow survivor, pilot Francois St. Pierre, believes pop-out windows would have been key.

"It would be a different story," said St. Pierre, originally from Montreal.

From left to right: Pilot Francois St. Pierre, Barbara Glenn and Patrick Morrissey. Both St. Pierre and Glenn managed to escape the sinking Beaver de Havilland float plane, but Glenn's husband, Thomas, did not. Morrissey's wife, Dr. Kerry Telford-Morrissey, and their six-month-old daughter, Sarah, both drowned. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

Only Glenn and St. Pierre found open doors and escaped. The others, including Glenn's husband, were trapped and drowned.

Patrick Morrissey is the third member of the support group. He wasn't on the flight, but his wife and infant daughter were. Both died.

Patrick Morrissey, who lost his wife and child in the Saturna tragedy, wonders how many more drownings have to occur before safety recommendations such as rapid emergency exits on all seaplanes become law. (Nic Amaya/CBC)

Morrissey finds it hard to believe the proposed safety improvements have yet to be implemented.

"I used to be angry. I used to be frustrated. Now I'm just sad. Because how many more have to die?"

They have an ally in the Transportation Safety Board.

Chair Kathy Fox says she's "very concerned" that Transport Canada still hasn't brought in new safety regulations.

Documents show industry fought regulation

Documents obtained by CBC under Access to Information show that in 2011 a stakeholder group that included representatives of the seaplane industry, aircraft manufacturers and Transport Canada inspectors rejected the recommendation for improved emergency exits, citing "prohibitive cost."

Transport Canada agreed with the assessment. Undated briefing notes recently prepared for Transport Minister Marc Garneau state, "Based on the focus group and its own cost/benefit analysis, Transport Canada decided not to proceed with … exits that allow rapid egress."

Instead, Transport Canada recommended that pilots receive "emergency egress training" every three years. 

Other Transport Canada documents reveal the seaplane industry worried the personal flotation device recommendation would scare off potential customers — citing "the perceived introduction of risk to passengers."

The records also reveal float plane operators were concerned about "the increased cost" of the recommendation.

No date given for change

In 2016, Transport Canada did propose that it be mandatory for passengers and crew to wear PFDs and that pilots receive emergency egress training. 

But more than two years later, the proposed regulations are still not in force.

In an email to CBC, Transport Canada did not provide a date for when the regulations will come into effect, stating it is following a "prescribed timeline" for the changes.

Harbour Air and Seair are major seaplane operators in B.C. that have voluntarily installed pop-out windows on their Beaver planes. Transport Canada has yet to make such safety features mandatory. (CBC archives)

In the meantime, some float plane operators have voluntarily installed pop-out windows.

Vancouver's Harbour Air, North America's largest seaplane operator, has done so on all its Beaver aircraft. So has B.C.'s Seair, which owned the Beaver in the Saturna crash.

But opposition to personal flotation devices for passengers is more widespread.

The industry argues that having passengers wear PFDs at all times creates additional risks, including the potential for a device to inflate prematurely and prevent a passenger from escaping through a tight exit in the event of a crash. Another industry concern is that the added wear and tear of mandatory use could damage PFDs.

"We don't want to be seen as resisting," said Vince Crooks, president of the B.C.-based Floatplane Operators Association.

"We just want to make sure that when the regulations come out, they work for us, so that we're not going to have to pass too many costs down to the customer."

More float plane deaths

TSB chair Kathy Fox says "it's a small amount of money for a big payoff" when it comes to saving lives.

Since the 2009 Saturna tragedy, there have been as many as eight drownings following float plane crashes in Canada.

While the Saturna crash survivors believe PFDs are important, they're convinced better emergency exits are essential to crash survival.

"If there had been pop-out windows in the plane, everybody would have gotten out," said Barbara Glenn.

"That's the no-brainer."

Six passengers died in the plane crash. Patrick Morrisey, top left, lost his wife, Dr. Kerry Telford-Morrissey, and their baby girl, Sarah Morrissey. Thomas Glenn, top right, was a successful electrical contractor. Catherine White Holman, bottom left, was a community counsellor working with marginalized people. The Catherine White Holman Wellness Centre in Vancouver was named after her. Cindy Schafer and Bruce Haskitt of California, bottom right, were part-owners of the Lighthouse Pub on Saturna Island. They share a memorial page on Facebook.

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