Toronto party boat passenger says crew was slow to respond to man overboard

A passenger aboard the same party cruise ship that a man fell off of Saturday night says staff didn't respond quickly enough. The Transportation Safety Board is now investigating.

Family confused how Keith White, who they say is a certified lifeguard, ended up in the water

Keith White, missing in Lake Ontario, is a certified lifeguard, his family says. (Keith White/Facebook)

A passenger aboard the same party cruise ship that a man fell off of Saturday night says staff didn't respond quickly enough after the man went overboard.

Keith White, 34, has been identified as the man who fell off the Mariposa Cruises ship Northern Spirit near the Humber River. A search for the man has been ongoing since. Police describe the search as a recovery mission.

CBC News spoke with Neetha Godara who was on the cruise that night. She said she could clearly see the man in the water waving his arms. 

She said staff didn't throw life-saving equipment early enough to the victim, and that the boat kept moving away from him instead of stopping. 

The ship was carrying more than 400 guests and had 19 staff members and 10 security personnel on board.

"A big boat doesn't stop on a dime," said Jim Nicholson, the President and CEO of Mariposa Cruises.

He said it took some time to turn the boat around. He said police arrived before security staff were able to get into a rescue boat that had been lowered.

Nicholson said staff are trained twice a year to respond to emergency situations like Saturday's.

"I extend my personal sympathies and thoughts to the family," said Nicholson in the statement released Monday. "All of us at Mariposa are deeply saddened following this tragic incident."

TSB launches investigation

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada announced Monday afternoon that it will investigate the incident.

Capt. Steven Neatt, one of the two investigators on the case, told CBC News they will begin by collecting log books, conducting interviews and checking the ship's certification and safety management plans.

Neatt said he does not have any information as to whether restrictions have been placed on the ship since Saturday.

"Transportation Safety Board investigations are solely to determine safety issues and identify them and bring them to the public and the transportation industry's knowledge," said Neatt.

Was 'legitimately an accident,' says friend

Jet Black, a friend of White's, said that Sunday "was a hard day of grief and acceptance."

"He is just a very social, likeable, hard work, play hard kind of guy," said Black.

Black said he learned that White had been leaning over the railing when he slipped and fell from the boat. 

"It was legitimately an accident," said Black. "He was hanging for a little bit but ultimately fell from the second deck at the front of the boat," said Black.

Black said witnesses frantically ran to the back of the boat and tried to toss White flotation devices. He said by the time they got to the back of the boat, the boat had already passed White.

"And Keith was treading water and by the time that they were able to get a boat to him they couldn't see him anymore," said Black.

White was a certified lifeguard

White's family released a statement Monday that says the family is confused how White, who they say is a certified lifeguard, ended up in the water.

"We are confused about how Keith could fall off a ship in daylight, surface alert and continue to swim, and yet it appears nothing was done to assist him in a timely manner," said the family's statement.

"Keith was a very healthy fit man and was a certified lifeguard and we look forward to the investigation determining how his location in the water was lost so quickly in calm water in daylight."

A foggy Monday morning and strong currents near the Humber River are complicating search efforts, according to Sgt. Gerry Klunder of the Toronto Police Marine Unit. 

"There's been a lot of rain in the last week and there's been a lot of debris floating in the water," said Klunder. "It could push someone a considerable distance from shore."

Police say they're still investigating the circumstances of the incident.