“The boat flipped over so fast that nobody had time to react or grab anything or hold onto anybody. The captain couldn’t even call for help because the capsized so fast.”
It was supposed to be a sunny afternoon on board the Leviathan II, looking for whales off the coast of Tofino.
Instead, tragedy struck, devastating dozens of families and rocking the small West Coast tourist town.
CKNW’s Laura Baziuk was there for the aftermath.
“A tour vessel has sunk with 27 people on board from a local company. There are fatalities involved and survivors. We are also conducting a search to confirm that we’ve recovered everybody.”
Crew had no time to issue distress call over radio
The unthinkable had happened. The 65-foot cruiser had capsized.
The mayday went out shortly before four o’clock when crews set off flares from the water.
The Coast Guard, search and rescue, members of the Ahousaht First Nation,and even local water taxi drivers sped to Plover Reef near Vargas Island.
Rami Touffaha saw the rescue boats rush back.
“All of Tofino’s resources were down at that dock. All of the ambulances that they have in town, the police officers, anybody in the community that looked like they had a boat that could be used was basically trying to go out to where the boat sank.”
Amidst the chaos, Sheila Simpson watched paramedics work on survivors.
“I saw someone didn’t make it. He was lying — the body was lying on the dock with a white sheet over him. I wanted to go down and put my hand on his chest, even though he was dead.”
Five confirmed dead, and one person missing
The dreaded news came later that night
“Of the 27 individuals who were on board the vessel when it sank, 21 were rescued, five were located without vital signs, and one remains missing.”
The story was spreading around the world.
No one thought it would be dangerous — enjoying one of the most popular tourist activities on B.C.’s coast.
On the dock, a hurricane lamp with a candle lit inside, holding out hope that that missing person would be found.
Search continues the next day
The next morning, members of the Ahousaht First Nation left before sunrise to resume the search for the missing person. The RCMP dive team joined them shortly after.
And word emerged from overseas that the five people who died were British nationals.
Among them, 50-year-old David Thomas, and his 18-year-old son, Stephen.
Wife and mother, Julie Thomas, survived.
As the community came to grips with the tragedy, staff at the well-known whale-watching company express heartbreak.
Owner of Leviathan II speaks
The owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station was almost in tears as he spoke to reporters.
“Traumatized, I think would be an appropriate word. Disbelief.”
Jamie Bray said this boat made that trip all the time.
There was a bit of a current in that area, but no sign it would have been different than any other day.
The skipper has 20 years’ experience. The crew goes through safety drills every two weeks.
Not the tour company’s first tragedy
Years earlier, two people were killed when a whale-watching boat capsized in the same place.
“The 1998 incident happened in a zodiac, a totally different type of vessel. It was struck by a rogue wave and the passengers were thrown out. It’s a totally different scenario as far as the vessels are concerned. The Leviathan’s 20 metres. It’s considerably larger than the other one.”
This time around, many questions with no answers. What happened out there?
Victims not wearing life-jackets
The coroner said none of the five people who died had been wearing life-jackets.
It’s not something Transport Canada requires when in an enclosed compartment.
The Transportation Safety Board says most passengers and crew had been on the boat’s top deck on the port side, when a wave approached from the starboard side.
The boat tilted up, rolled and capsized.
But investigators caution against drawing conclusions, saying their work is expected to take months.
Community comes together
That night, what seemed like the entire town turned out to a meeting and potluck to find out what they could do.
Amidst the tears, hugs, and words of support, people shared their stories.
Two members of the Ahousaht First Nation said they first spotted the Leviathan II’s flare.
Clarence Smith and Ken Lucas had been out fishing.
Ahousaht First Nation members instrumental in rescue efforts
They said they sped over to the vessel and started pulling people out of the water.
“Nobody said anything. I’m pretty sure they were in shock. I think they were just happy to be in the boat and just happy to be there. And we covered them up with everything that we had, coats, sweaters and jackets.”
One man was still clinging to the boat and had to be cut from a line that was wrapped around his leg.
“We saw two more ladies about 10 or 15 feet away from the boat that flipped and sunk. They were screaming and yelling. We picked them up out of the water. The one lady said she had a broken leg and the other lady was pregnant. And she said to get the pregnant lady on the boat first so we did that. We got the guy on first, the pregnant lady on second, the lady with the broken leg third.”
They called for other boats to help right away, and started rushing them to Tofino to be treated.
The entire Ahousaht First Nation has been praised for its help that day.
Mayor Josie Osborne says the community will get through this, but what she calls the worst marine tragedy to ever hit Tofino has deeply wounded them.
And left whale-watching guides anxiously waiting to see how much of a hit the industry will take.
More importantly, it has ripped apart the families of victims and survivors, now facing a long and painful path to recovery.
The body of the sixth victim, 27-year-old Raveshan Pillay from Australia, was found nearly a month later.
All British, the five people who died in the whale-watching expedition have been identified as:
- Katie Taylor, aged 29, a British national who lived in Whistler
- Jack Slater, aged 76, a British national who lived in Toronto
- Nigel Francis Hooker, aged 63, of Southampton, England
- David Wyndham Thomas, aged 50, of Swindon, England
- Stephen David Thomas, aged 18, also of Swindon, son of David Wyndham Thomas