Ahousaht First Nation members were at the forefront of rescue efforts when a whale-watching boat capsized off the Vancouver Island town of Tofino on October 25, killing at least five people and leaving one person still missing as of Monday.
“We had a couple of guys who were actually out on the waters doing a little bit of fishing, and they saw this flare go up and they immediately responded to the flare there,” Ahousaht First Nation member Alec Dick told Global News Canada by phone on October 26. “And they came across some people in the water, and there was this boat that was just the nose—the bow sticking out of the water. Some of the people actually made it into a life raft, and the others were thrown into the water.”
The Ahousaht boats pulled people in while calling for assistance, Dick said, “so our local boys went out—five boats that went out from Ahousaht.”
As of late Sunday, 21 of the 27 passengers aboard had been rescued, Lt. Commander Desmond James of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) told Fox News. Eighteen were taken to hospitals, with some of them released by Monday.
The search for the missing person is now under the jurisdiction of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The five who died were British nationals, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s office said.
“It is with deep sadness that I can confirm five British nationals have lost their lives when the whale watching boat they were on sank off Western Canada on Sunday,” Hammond said in a statement on Monday October 26. “My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident. Consular staff in British Columbia are supporting the family members of those who have died and we will remain in close contact with Canadian authorities as further information becomes available.”
Ahousaht First Nation council member Tom Campbell said his cousin had pulled eight or so people from the water into a rescue boat and that he had seen them come ashore.
"Their looks tell the whole story," Campbell told the Canadian Press. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost—shocked and lost."
The boat, the Leviathan II, was operated by Jamie's Whaling Station & Adventure Centres, whose owner, Jamie Bray, posted a statement on the company’s website.
“It has been a tragic day. Our entire team is heartbroken over this incident and our hearts go out to the families, friends and loved ones of everyone involved,” Bray said in the statement. “We are doing everything we can to assist our passengers and staff through this difficult time. We are cooperating with investigators to determine exactly what happened.”
Bray went on to thank everyone who helped.
“In the meantime, we want to extend our most sincere thank you to the first responders, rescue personnel, and everyone from Tofino and the local First Nations communities who assisted with the response efforts,” Bray said.
Though the boat was in a rocky area when it sent out a mayday call at around 4 p.m. Pacific Time on Sunday, the seas were calm, according to reports.
Tal-o-qui-aht First Nation member Joe Martin was near the dock and saw the rescue boats head toward the scene, the Canadian Press reported.
"It wasn't even blowing hard," Martin told the Canadian Press. "This is the largest boat in Tofino, and I was really surprised that it went down."