TOFINO, B.C. – The owner of a whale-watching vessel that sank off British Columbia’s coast on Sunday, killing five people, doesn’t know why the boat would have flipped, sending 27 people into the water.
“This vessel has operated for 20 years with an absolutely perfect safety record,” Jamie Bray, the owner of Jamie’s Whaling Station, said at a news conference on Monday.
Bray said the 20-metre long Leviathan II flipped and when rescuers arrived it was still running and in gear, with its bow bobbing in the water.
Private vessels rushed to the scene Sunday afternoon after the mayday call, picking up survivors and bodies.
“We’re all traumatized,” Bray said, his voice shaking.
One person was still classified as missing on Monday afternoon.
Marc-Andre Poisson, director of investigation for the Transportation Safety Board, said they don’t know what caused the boat to sink but they’ll be collecting data, conducting interviews, looking at weather conditions, analyzing photos and the maintenance records of the vessel.
Poisson said the boat has been towed away to a sheltered area to be examined.
All five people who died were British nationals, Britain’s Foreign Office confirmed on Monday.
“My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in a statement, adding consular staff in B.C. are supporting grieving family members.
The B.C. Coroners Service said those killed ranged in age from 18 to 76, and that four of them were men.
Three of the dead were from Britain, while two of the British nationals were living in Canada. The woman was from B.C. and a man lived in Ontario, the service said.
Richard Little, 59, owner of a water taxi called the Ahousaht Raider, said he arrived at the accident scene after volunteers had rescued survivors and removed many of the dead.
He said the boat had not sunk but was bouncing up and down in the water, its bow up and stern down.
“I could see debris floating out of the cabin, the windows, door was slamming open and shut, and like cushions from seats and cushions from … inside the boat were floating out of the boat,” he said.
He said he also saw a deflated life-raft, still attached to the boat with a line.
The Ahoushat First Nation was the closest community to where the boat sank, about 15 kilometres northwest of the tourist town of Tofino.
Robert Burridge of Nanaimo was in Ahousaht on Sunday afternoon and estimates that every vessel that could be used in the village was in the water searching for missing people.
“The Ahousahts were the first on the scene,” he said. “They know these waters. They have a custom not to leave a body out at sea.”
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirmed in a statement that an Australian man was missing. The Associated Press reported that it was providing consular assistance to the man’s family.
Australian Associated Press reported that the 27 year-old Sydney man’s family said he was on the boat with his girlfriend and her family when it sank. His girlfriend’s father was among the five British citizens confirmed dead, the Australian news agency said.
Some of the 21 people who were rescued were injured.
Valerie Wilson, with the Island Health authority, said four people remained in different hospitals around the province. All four people were listed in stable condition, she said.
Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, said the whale-watching community is in shock over the incident.
He said tour operators go above and beyond to make sure their passengers are safe.
Harris said the first thing operators do when passengers get on board is explain safety, including where the life-jackets are kept. It’s unclear if the passengers on the Leviathan were wearing life-jackets.
Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier Christy Clark expressed their condolences.
“I was shocked and saddened to hear of the sinking of a whale watching boat near the B.C. coast and the passengers aboard who have lost their lives in the incident,” Trudeau said.
Both Trudeau and the premier thanked people who helped in the rescue effort.
Tofino residents Sean and Deddeda White arrived with flowers at the dock on Monday as an RCMP dive team prepared to leave for the accident scene.
Deddeda White said she gathered cedar bows and flowers from her garden to make the bouquet she left at the dock.
“This affects the whole town,” she said.