The tragedy at Tofino, B.C.: Inside the sinking of Leviathan II

The tragedy at Tofino, B.C.: Inside the sinking of Leviathan II


The Leviathan II whale-watching ship capsized last October, killing six. For the first time, the survivors and rescuers recount how the tragedy unfolded.


By Nancy Macdonald


Christian Barchfeld was tumbling around and around—as though in a washing machine—inside the lower deck of the Leviathan II. Seconds earlier, the 20-m whale-watch cruiser had suddenly capsized in the North Pacific, off Tofino, B.C. “There was no cry, no warning—nothing,” says the 51-year-old dental technician from Burgwedel, north of Hanover, Germany. The waves had come charging over the stern and tossed the 33-tonne boat like a plastic toy.

The roll complete, the quiet, stoic German stood. He was in water to his chest. It was ice cold. All around him it was dark. Through the portholes he could see only water—dark, murky, endless. That’s when it dawned on him: He was standing on the ceiling of the vessel’s lower deck. The roof was now the floor. Barchfeld was trapped inside a sinking ship, kept alive, for the moment, by an air pocket. This is how I’m going to die, he thought. Breathe, he told himself. Don’t panic.

The fog lifted early on the morning of Oct. 25. By noon, the skies were high and cloudless. The temperatures were on their way to an unseasonably high 15 degrees.

The Canadian government maintains a data buoy at La Perouse Bank, 34 km off Ucluelet. It’s one of six surrounding Vancouver Island that relay oceanographic information back to shore on an hourly basis. By afternoon, it was recording a water temperature of 14° C, “mild” for the Pacific Northwest, says University of Victoria oceanographer Richard Dewey. The wind was blowing at 5.8 knots, with waves hitting 1.7 m, not unusual for late fall.

Starting in October, a vast, persistent low-pressure system known as the Aleutian Low builds in the Gulf of Alaska, Dewey explains. Beyond the quaint, cedar cottages and salt-stained docks of Tofino, it lashes the coast with cyclonic winds and high waves.

The unpredictable weather, combined with the North Pacific’s craggy shores, have created a dangerous patch of sea known by generations of mariners as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It stretches roughly from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Tillamook Bay, on the Oregon coast. It’s claimed more than 240 ships since 1803, giving it more wrecks per kilometre than anywhere else in the world.

The waters still claim several lives each year. In mid-September, the Caledonian, a commercial fishing boat capsized off Estevan Point, near Tofino. Three crew drowned, bringing the number of fishing deaths in B.C. last year to six, making 2015 the deadliest year for B.C. fishers in a decade.

Before the Leviathan II left the Tofino Harbour that day, two young deckhands were readying the 24 passengers for the 1:30 p.m. sailing, a two- to three-hour trip. The journey began with a safety briefing, not unlike the kind given before a flight.

The first leg was unremarkable. But 50 minutes in, Barchfeld felt sea conditions were beginning to change, as the vessel moved toward the open ocean, away from the protected bays and inlets near Tofino. He was seated directly behind skipper Wayne Dolby, an 18-year veteran of tour boats, and though he was getting nervous, he could clearly see Dolby remained perfectly calm. Looking out to sea, Barchfeld could see higher waves, and descended to the ship’s lowest level.

Barchfeld’s younger brother, Dirk, 48, who works in Hanover’s justice department, started to follow him, but stopped on the middle deck. He leaned against a railing and gazed out to sea. “I tried to dampen my anxiety and enjoy the adventure.” Soon, the sea lions at Plover Rocks came into view, and his fear vanished. “They were adorable, jumping in the air, putting on a little show for us,” says Elisa Kasha, a Calgary health care worker.

Dirk (left) and Christian Barchfeld had taken the trip after the collapse of Dirk's marriage; at first, neither knew the other had survived (Photograph by Michael Danner/Getty Images)

A million tourists a year come to Tofino, a town of 1,200, to surf, storm watch and hike. Over the past two decades, the rain-soaked paradise at the western edge of Vancouver Island has also established itself as a global whale-watch capital.

Clayoquot Sound is rich with the plankton, molluscs and krill that draw herring, salmon and whales that in turn lure tourists. Starting in late February, migrating grey whales bigger than Greyhound buses cross Tofino’s front porch on their journey north to Alaska from their winter breeding grounds in Baja, Calif. Humpbacks are also a common sight. And by summer, transient killer whales come hunting for marine mammals.

Jamie Bray, a former commercial fisher raised in Vancouver, was the first to realize that tourists would be willing to spend big to watch it all unfold. In 1982, he launched Jamie’s Whale Watching Station with a refurbished ex-troller. He announced the venture with six felt-pen posters stapled to telephone poles across Tofino. Anyone wanting to see whales should line up at the pier the following morning at 10, the posters announced. Six turned up. These days, Jamie’s, still the town’s biggest whale tour operator, will carry an annual 20,000 tourists every year.

But in Tofino, Bray’s reputation is complex. He’s conscientious and helped set the industry non-interference policy that protects the whales. He’s also a pioneer with a Midas touch. He recently added a hotel, Jamie’s Rainforest Inn, and picked up Port Alberni’s historic Lady Rose, with plans to convert the decommissioned ship to a restaurant. But nine people have died on his company’s boats over the years, including the six who perished on Oct. 25 in the Leviathan II tragedy.

The accident made news worldwide. There were three crew and 24 passengers aboard, many of them tourists from Europe. Maclean’s spoke with more than two dozen people, from survivors, to crew, to rescuers, to family members, in order to reconstruct the desperate struggle for survival that followed the boat’s capsize—and the rescue efforts that ultimately saved 21 lives.

Kasha (left) and Dwayne Mazereeuw wanted only to get back to their two children (Photograph by Crystal Schick)

Only two survivors told Maclean’s they saw the wave that caught the Leviathan II. To Kasha’s husband, Dwayne Mazereeuw, a Calgary skate park designer, it looked big, but not exceptional. But to deckhand Trinity Jezierski, 21, it looked like a “giant—higher than the boat.”

If she’s right, the Leviathan II may have been claimed by what mariners call a “rogue” or “freak” wave. “They are rare, but real,” says Dewey. “Their most simple explanation is that they are a superposition of several waves coming from different directions, which sum together to form a much larger wave.”

Witnesses describe a steep wall of water, often with a hollow trench in front of them. Maritime history is full of battles with such waves. So is Tofino’s.

A few years ago, a seven-year-old boy, visiting Tofino from Washington state to celebrate his brother’s birthday, went missing. He’d been playing on a concrete pad near the water when his father stepped away for five minutes. A massive search of the surrounding forest and water ensued, but rescuers believe the boy was swept away by a rogue wave. Rogue waves are blamed for the deaths of 20 people along Vancouver Island’s West Coast, a rate of one to two per year.

At Plover Reefs, an outcrop of islets just off Vargas Island, survivors say Dolby steered the vessel along the rocks, turned the ship, then took another pass. This time, waves were hitting the boat from the starboard side, rocking the passengers as they crashed against the hull.

Before turning and heading for Tofino, survivors tell Maclean’s the skipper slowed, perhaps to give them one long, last look at the sea lions. The trip had been a bit of a bust. They’d only seen a couple of grey whales—no tails, every amateur wildlife photographer’s dream shot.

The Barchfeld brothers estimate Dolby slowed to one-third speed. “We were kind of sitting there,” Mazereeuw explains. “I can’t remember if someone said something, or if I just happened to look,” says Mazereeuw, who saw the approaching wave out of the corner of his eye. “We’re going to get rocked—I better hang on,” he thought, grabbing hold of the guard rail. In the next second, a steep wave buried the deck under water. Then all of a sudden, the boat “started tipping and tipping,” says Mazereeuw. They keeled dangerously to one side, hanging there for a half-second, as gravity deliberated their case.

“It wasn’t until we were sideways and people were falling over my head into the water that I realized we were in real trouble,” says Mazereeuw. The next second he was pushed beneath the boat, as it went crashing into the water, completing its roll. Somehow, he maintained his grip on the railing even as he was dragged into the water. “In all, it took one to two seconds,” says Mazereeuw. “It was that quick.” One moment, the boat was upright, the next, it was down, flooding and sinking.

Sea lions at Plover Rock put on a show for the passengers of Leviathan II (Photograph by Adam Chilton)

In total, 27 people were aboard. The Barchfelds had taken the trip after the collapse of Dirk’s marriage. The hockey-mad brothers, perhaps the game’s biggest fans in a country that much prefers soccer, took a road trip from Alberta to B.C., catching four NHL games. Mazereeuw and Kasha were taking their first weekend getaway since the birth of their two children, Tysen, 3, and Ella, 18 months.

The Thomas family—Julie, 49, her husband David, 50, a Microsoft vice-president, and their youngest son, Stephen, 18, who had Down syndrome—had left Swindon in southwest England in pursuit of Stephen and David’s shared passion for photography. A year earlier, Stephen had won an award for a photo he took of Banff’s Moraine Lake. Both he and his dad maintained websites showcasing their art. David noted how “incredibly grateful” he was to his “very supportive” family who “put up with all the frequent stops to ‘just take a quick picture (or 10!).’ ”

Nigel Hooker, 63, an engineer and manager with Airbus Defence and Space in Portsmouth, England, and his daughter, Aimee, a police officer, were meeting another daughter, Danielle, 28, a Sydney-based graphics designer, and her boyfriend Rav Pillay, 27, an electrician. Jack Slater, a Toronto entrepreneur and former engineer with the British Navy, was celebrating his birthday with his wife, Marjorie; he’d just turned 76.

All her life, Katie Taylor, 29, a supervisor at the Whistler Day Spa at the Pan Pacific Hotel had wanted to see whales; she’d taken the trip to Vancouver Island on her own. All were now in the water. The Coast Guard had no idea they were in danger. The crew could do little to help. Their fate was in their own hands.

Being thrown into cold water this way can trigger a fatal series of physiological reactions, says the University of Manitoba cold water expert Gordon Giesbrecht. First, the shock of the cold will cause a person to gasp automatically. Even the strongest can be killed in seconds this way, if their head happens to be beneath water when they inhale.

Hyperventilation is also common. Like the gasp reaction, it’s naturally occurring. If not controlled, the panic can be fatal by causing a person to grow faint, says Giesbrecht. A third response is cardiac related. The cold forces the heart to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. At least one victim died from heart failure.

Jamie Bray (front right) owned Leviathan II (Chad Hipolito/CP)

In the days after the accident, Jamie Bray and other operators tried to defend the practice of not requiring passengers to wear lifejackets by explaining they make escape harder in an enclosed boat. That’s nonsense, says Giesbrecht. He’s conducted a study where people wearing flotation coats are plunged into water: “The assumption is this will hinder their ability to escape the sinking car.” It “really doesn’t.”

Most people who die in cold water don’t die from hypothermia, he adds. They drown because cold incapacitation sets in, muscles and nerve endings stop working and they gradually become unable to keep their heads above water. “That’s why a lifejacket is so important. They will be kept alive long after a person becomes incapacitated by cold.”

Pillay was reportedly unconscious by the time he plunged into the water. Survivors tried to keep his head above water but they lost their grip, and he disappeared.

People thrust suddenly into extraordinary situations like this report experiencing them in strange and distorted ways. “Where are the cameras?” Christian Barchfeld wondered, momentarily dazed. He thought he’d been transported to a movie set.

His brother Dirk was underwater for 10 seconds before he managed to fight his way to the surface, kicking with all his might. When he burst through, gasping for air, shocked from the sudden cold, the first thing he saw was the hull of the Leviathan II, facing skyward, bright red, like a open wound. Just 10 m from him he could see, and hear, the engine’s whirring propellers. He thought immediately of the Titanic, and how passengers had been sucked into the props, and swam as quickly as he could from the heaving boat.

Mazereeuw had the opposite reaction: He’s a weak swimmer. During his scuba certification he barely made it through the 10-minute swim test. “I’ve got 10 minutes of treading,” he thought to himself: “I better find something to hold onto.” He started climbing onto the boat’s hull when he heard someone yell: “Get off the boat!” Mazereeuw eventually complied. But it was an agonizing decision. He wasn’t sure he’d make it.

Jezierski, the young deckhand, was trapped in the wheelhouse after the boat capsized. She’d been thrown around the small cabin as the boat flipped. She remembers thinking: “ ‘All right, you’re going to hit your head, and it’s going to be done; it’s going to be over.’ I was just waiting for impact. I didn’t even get to react.”

But then she felt a pressure on her chest. “I figured I must be under the boat. I couldn’t see. I started to swim—I swam down. I knew there was something on top of me.” She surfaced, disoriented, gasping for air beside the boat. Around her, she heard the sea lions barking and howling, waves crashing, passengers yelling. “With all the adrenalin running through my body . . . my training kicked in.”

Control your breathing, she thought. Is anything—shoes, a sweater—weighing me down? Then she swam for the first person she saw. Soon after, she says, she spotted a life raft in its canister. She and Dolby, the skipper, deployed the raft.

Dirk Barchfeld by then had managed to calm himself by following the example of Jack Slater’s wife, Marjorie. She was the first person he’d seen on the water: “She was floating flat on her back, trying to make herself very calm. She wasn’t frantically paddling around—she wasn’t crying.” Don’t panic, he thought to himself. Act like her. He saw an orange plastic life ring in the water near him, and thrust it over his shoulders.

At that moment, he happened to float past Mazereeuw. “Can I grab on?” he asked. Kasha, who’d been calling for Mazereeuw, soon joined them.

“I knew we were in trouble,” says Mazereeuw. “People could have hit their heads on the way in, the boat could have hit people as it capsized. But it was a huge relief—to know we were both okay and together, at least.” All around them people were screaming, crying, panicking.

Slowly, their group grew to eight: Two middle-aged Texans (a brother and sister), two women from Vancouver Island, Marjorie Slater, Mazereeuw, Kasha and Dirk Barchfeld. Each held onto the small ring with a single hand while treading water. One of the Island women, a strong swimmer, would briefly rest on the ring, then swim out, to increase its buoyancy (she chose not to speak with Maclean’s).

She was the group’s informal leader and kept them going, periodically shouting words of encouragement: “We are going to make it! Don’t give up! Stay together!” Some in the group were in bad shape: One was bleeding from a head wound. At least three were in severe shock and were not speaking. And they were deeply concerned for Marjorie Slater. She was 79, and quickly fading.

The water was very rough. “We were taking on water, swallowing water,” says Mazereeuw. That’s when a body, floating face down, clearly dead, was carried into the group by a wave. It was less than a metre from them. “That’s where it really hit,” he says. “There’s people that aren’t making it.”

“We’re in big trouble,” Kasha thought.

“Was that my brother?” Dirk Barchfeld wondered. He couldn’t tell. How many were already dead? Were they all going to die out here?

Photos taken by Ken Brown of some survivors he and his crew brought aboard his boat, the Kingfisher

His brother Christian was alive, but in serious danger, trapped in the boat’s lower deck with a pregnant woman, and a second woman with a broken leg. They’d been tossed around the cabin as the boat flipped, and suddenly found themselves neck-deep in water.

The women panicked when they came to a stop, Barchfeld recalls, screaming “louder and louder.” Willing himself to stay calm, Barchfeld began searching for the stairway he’d walked down just minutes earlier. He dived again and again into the one- to two-metre water, searching with his hands, hoping to feel the stairwell. It was dark in the hull, though some light was creeping through the murky water. Then Barchfeld’s heart sank: he realized the exit had been completely blocked by debris when the boat flipped.

Next, Barchfeld began trying to kick out a window, first using his feet, then his shoulders. “But it was not possible: The window is so thick.” Somehow, he remained focused and clear-headed, telling himself over and over again not to panic. He kept diving, again and again, trying desperately to find something—a hammer, a piece of broken furniture—that might be used to break through the window.

He turned to break the news to the two women: they were crying and praying and holding each other tightly, arms wrapped around the other’s shoulders in a hug.

“There is no exit,” Barchfeld said simply. “There is no way out. We are completely blocked in.” They would surely go down with the ship, he thought.

By then the group of eight had drifted to the ocean side of the rocks and were being thrashed about in the swirling wash, trying to stay above the surface in two-metre waves. With every wave, they got a mouthful of diesel and salt water. All they could do was call out to each other: “Watch out! Another wave!” In the distance, less than 100 m from them, they could see the life raft drifting away.

“We tried to get everyone to swim toward it, kicking together, as a team. And it seemed like we were gaining on it. Then a huge set of waves came crashing over,” says Mazereeuw. “Because there were so many on the life ring we were like an anchor. We were being pulled under.” After all that, they’d been pushed back further than when they started. “We were beyond swimming or letting go of that ring.”

On their own, the more experienced swimmers should have been able to make the 100-m crossing to the life raft. But it was far from clear that all would make it. They chose to stick together, a decision experts say might have saved lives. Expending energy causes heat loss, and humans lose heat 25 to 30 times faster when they’re in water than on land.

Mazereeuw and Kasha could only think of their two babies, how they hadn’t yet prepared a will. What will happen to them if we don’t make it back, Mazereeuw kept wondering.

At that point, Marjorie Slater started going downhill. “I’m going to die,” she kept saying, speaking aloud to no one in particular the words they’d all been silently thinking: “I can’t do this anymore.” Some in the group tried lifting her onto Dirk’s shoulder, to prop her head on the life ring, out of the water. They’d floated into a kelp bed, and the slimy seaweed, thick as an arm, would wrap around them, pulling them below water.

Kasha’s thoughts kept returning to Ella: “She has curly, fine, baby hair at the back of her head. You know how baby hair smells so sweet? I kept thinking of her curly, blond hair. I would touch her face and run my fingers through it, and smell it.”

Some had lost feeling in their feet, their arms. They were struggling against exhaustion to keep their faces out of the water. Hypothermia was beginning to set in, Mazereeuw says. He was close to losing consciousness. A second body drifted over and was bobbing in the waves alongside them.

No one had spoken a word for a long time—they were beyond talking. “It was so quiet. It was eerie,” says Kasha. Some had gone blue or grey or purple from cold, their faces smeared with black diesel, like war paint. The unspoken: No one is coming.

“I was so tired,” says Kasha. “I started to think about just letting go. I wasn’t feeling panicked, or nervous. We couldn’t see anybody. We had been out there for so long. It was just really quiet. There was nobody . . . It’s time,” she thought.

[brightcove id='4770794060001' width='100%' height='462']

Then the boat, which had been lying parallel to the water, started to shift, and sink, stern first, its bow rising above the water line. Water poured in. This is it, thought Christian Barchfeld.

His thoughts turned to his family, to his teenaged son, whose roller hockey team he helps manage, to his wife, Edda, who survived a bout with cancer, but whose legs had been amputated from the knee down. He and Dirk were scouting potential locations he might bring Edda. But what he remembers most clearly is how “completely alone” he felt in that moment, what he thought was his last on Earth. Remarkably, the will to live remained alight. On an intellectual level, Barchfeld knew it was hopeless, but he kept diving, kept searching for a way out.

Thirty minutes had passed. And then, a stroke of luck. As the boat shifted, he saw a bit of light in the bow: Part of the door, which had been impossible to open due to water pressure, was now above the waterline, and he was able to kick it open. The women followed immediately behind him. Earlier, he’d found a life ring, which he’d given them. They grabbed hold of it and pushed away from the boat. That was the last Barchfeld saw of them. (Both survived, though none of the survivors know what happened to the pregnant woman, or her name. The woman with the broken leg declined comment for this story.)

Barchfeld was in deep trouble. The effort to free them had drained him of every last ounce of energy. He was exhausted. If he let go of the boat he would surely drown in the rough seas. He could barely stand. What can I do? he thought. “I had nothing—nothing—left in me.” Really, there was only one option. He wrapped his arms around a steel bar and clung to the boat with every ounce of energy he had left, the waves tossing him up and down, drilling the steel into his arms, his shoulders, his face. The vessel was equipped with 30 m of rope, which had come loose and had taken on a life of its own, writhing and slithering around the dark water like a sea snake, coiling around and around Barchfeld’s ankles, anchoring him to the boat. Even if he needed to abandon ship, he no longer could.

“I’m going down,” he thought. He started to think about what it would feel like to drown: Would it be painful? Would it be quick?

It was at that moment, out of the corner of his eye, that Barchfeld saw a flare arcing overhead. Jezierski and fellow deckhand Etienne Herold spotted a flare floating in the water; together, with Herold holding onto Jezierski’s ankles, they stretched out from the raft to grab it and immediately deployed it. Until then, they had done what they could to help rescue other passengers and keep everyone on the raft “warm and calm, and reassure them there were other boats in the area,” says Jezierski. “I knew someone was going to come. I never thought: ‘No one is going to come.’ ”

The flicker of hope the flare alighted in Christian Barchfeld powered him through the 30 minutes it took rescuers to arrive onsite. “Hang on,” he kept telling himself. It was enough—barely.

He remembers being pulled into the boat. Seconds later, he lost consciousness. He was out for 35 minutes. He came to as he was being stretchered into an ambulance at the Tofino Harbour, his mind jolted to reality by the screaming sirens, the flashing lights.

Since returning to his tidy, attic apartment in Burgwedel, Barchfeld has continued to marvel at the tenacity of the human mind, that refused to capitulate, to release him to the ocean.

Ken Brown was fishing for halibut with his partner, Clarence Smith, that afternoon. They were doing a “surplus” fish off Schott Island, to stock the freezers of elders in Ahousaht, an isolated Nuu-chah-nulth community off the coast of Tofino, Brown had never fished the site before. They’d laid lines on two sides of the island, then went beachcombing. Normally they’d wait three to four hours before checking their gear. But on that day, they headed in an hour early.

Brown can’t say why exactly, nor why they chose to haul in the shorter line first, nor why they chose to fish off Schott, nor why they even went out that Sunday at all. But he’s a spiritual man. He believes a higher power placed them there, facing the vessel’s stern, looking up, at the precise moment a bright red flare arced across the blue sky. Had they gone to haul in the long line first, or waited it out, they never would have seen it, says Smith: “Everybody could’ve been gone, I would say.”

Smith was raised at Nuchatlaht, and was on fishing boats before he could walk, but was sent to residential school in Tofino, where the Tin Wis Hotel now stands. That’s where he met his wife, Doreen Smith, from Ahousaht. She was the only good thing to come of that dark, ugly chapter. When he turned 16, Smith walked out the school and onto a fishing boat. It became more than a way of life: It is also a salve, “good medicine,” to help heal the scars. He and Brown are on the water nine, 10 hours a day, year-round. They’ve learned to read the water, where it runs faster, deeper, warmer. “It’s our way of life,” says Smith. “It’s what we love to do. It’s where we love to be.”

After seeing the flare that day, they ripped in the line as quickly as they could and headed out. It was slow going, they couldn’t run at full throttle: “The tide was running and the sea was up,” says Smith. “The groundswell was hitting the boat pretty hard,” says Brown. The closer they got to the accident site, the rougher the water got: “The current was ripping and we were getting slapped around pretty good.”

The rescuers from Ahousaht just happened to be in the right spot at the right time to see the flare (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

The first person they reached was Christian Barchfeld, who was still clinging to the hull. He was “lifeless, but breathing,” says Smith. “He wouldn’t move. He wouldn’t say anything. He wouldn’t try to help us. He wouldn’t have made it much longer in the state he was in.” Brown could see a bright green line wrapped around his ankle. He cut through it in three places to free him after hauling him in. “I wrapped my driest shirt right around his head and ears, then we wrapped another sweater around his chest and arms,” says Brown. “You’re gonna be okay,” he kept telling him. “You’re safe now.”

When they got to the life raft it was being pushed toward the reef: “If we didn’t catch them within a matter of seconds they were gonna get thrown right up on the rocks,” says Brown. They towed the raft 15 m from the wash then transferred everyone aboard the Kingfisher. The G.I. Charles, a water taxi piloted by Francis Campbell, 43, and his wife, Michelle Campbell, 47, was next on scene. They’d been headed for Tofino with two hikers when Michelle heard Brown’s frantic call.

When they tried to lift Marjorie Slater she “slipped right out of my hand, she was so oily and slippery,” says Francis. When they got her aboard, he gently placed her on the floor and covered her with his jacket. He worried they would lose her on the ride in. He counted down the minutes to Tofino as they rode in, calling to her. Michelle hauled the others in: eight in all. One man was diabetic. He couldn’t feel his hands so Michelle dug into his pocket for a candy and placed it in his mouth.

“The two hikers gave us everything they had,” all of it expensive, technical hiking apparel and sleeping bags, says Kasha. One survivor was so concerned by her appearance—she was deathly white from cold—he peeled back his rainsuit and held her against his warm skin the entire, 30-minute ride to Tofino. Kasha has little memory of it. Mazereeuw, meanwhile, had blacked out by then.

Water taxi driver Francis Campbell was second on the scene (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

The White Star, piloted by Peter Frank Jr., 33, was next on scene. They transferred nine passengers from Smith’s overloaded boat. Frank Jr. was terrified: “It was real ugly out there. There was a big groundswell. The rollers were something else—coming right up over the boat. I’m half the size of [the Leviathan II] and that boat went down in the weather I’m in.”

It was dead quiet when they got going. When they hit a wave he heard the passengers scream. The waves were roaring up and spilling into his bow. Frank Jr. realized they were terrified. He stood: “I’m Peter Frank Jr.,” he said. “This is Peter Frank Sr.’s boat. This is the White Star. This boat’s been through some big seas. I can tell you right now, this boat’s proven. And you guys are okay now. Everything’s going to be all right. We’re going to get you to harbour, safe.”

“I understood they had been through a whole lot that day. All I could think was: I’ve gotta let them know they’re okay,” he recalls, tears streaming down his face at the memory. Months later, he’s still devastated.

Some of the passengers aboard the White Star were quietly crying. Some were staring straight ahead, in shock. Some threw up, perhaps from the release of adrenalin. One young woman was shaking so violently that Frank Jr. peeled off his jacket and wrapped her in it. “Thank you,” she kept saying. “Thank you for coming for us.”

When they got to Tofino, they saw firefighters, desperate for a miracle, performing CPR on cold, lifeless bodies. It was useless. Some had to be physically pulled off by their superiors, as hope slowly surrendered on the docks. “I broke a lot of ribs,” was all one firefighter would say.

“I wasn’t aware that people didn’t make it—until I saw three bodies covered in sheets,” says Brown. “That shook me to my core. They belonged to somebody. Each of them had families: Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren they’re not going to make it home to see. I cried when I got home.”

The dead were: Nigel Hooker, 63, Jack Slater, 76, Katie Taylor, 29, David Thomas, 50, and his son, Stephen, who was just weeks from turning 19. One month later, the body of Rav Pillay, who was listed as missing, and presumed drowned, was found on the beach of Vargas Island. “I’m not a hero,” Brown says, something all the rescuers from Ahousaht repeatedly assert. “I won’t ever accept that: I don’t agree to it, I don’t embrace it. People needed help, and I was there.”

“That’s the Ahousaht way,” they will tell you, with a shrug.

Ginette Emburey (right) and her partner, Corey Windover, treated the 'walking wounded' at his home (Photograph by Adam Chilton)

With the freak storms and hardy lifestyles, tragedy on Vancouver Island is not uncommon. With police and Coast Guard spread thin, citizens are often forced to fend for themselves, relying on a volunteer fire corps, paramedic crew and search and rescue team when disaster strikes. “It’s people’s way of getting out and serving the community,” says paramedic Corey Windover. “Nobody’s out looking for accolades.”

It wasn’t just paramedics. The rescue operation was an all-volunteer squad: The only people paid to assist were the hospital and Coast Guard staff.

Word of the capsizing ricocheted around Tofino. Nine off-duty paramedics and a firefighting team of equal size responded.

They were met on the dock by Sara McArthur, Jamie’s safety and operations manager. Earlier that evening, she’d received a call that the office was unable to reach the Leviathan II by radio when expected. “While I was on the phone I heard it come over the Coast Guard channel—the Leviathan II had capsized. I dropped everything, and raced to the dock to see how I could be of any help.” It was an emotional scene, she says. “At that point we were trying to figure out how many were accounted for and who may still need rescuing.”

Unit chief Bill Craven was the acting incident commander at the docks, organizing ambulances, stretchers, blankets, flannels and warming pads. He assigned a fire captain to act as scribe. He asked every person coming off a boat three questions: “What is your name? Who are you missing? Can you name anyone else on the boat?”

When doctors sent word not to flood the hospital, Windover jumped in: “My house is just off the docks, halfway up the hill to hospital.” The “critical” and “more than critical” went to hospital. The so-called “walking wounded” were initially treated at Windover’s house before being sent to hospital when a bed opened up.

“It’s like a business,” says Craven, a retired banker: “You have to divide out who needs the most attention the quickest.”

Bill Craven (left) organized the scene at the docks and Tim Oh worked at the hospital (Photograph by Adam Chilton)

Cathy George, who owns Tofino’s Himwitsa Gallery, rushed to the Co-Op to buy food to bring to the hospital (the Co-Op refused to let her pay). Charles and Kari-Anne McDiarmid, owners of the Wickaninnish Inn delivered blankets and slippers to Windover’s. Ralph Tieleman, a local stock broker, brought pizzas and lent out his cellphone so survivors could call home.

Windover and his partner, Ginette Emburey, ushered the hypothermic into warm showers, washing and drying their clothes, feeding them tea and cookies. “That’s when a second wave came over us,” says Dirk Barchfeld: “A wave of help.”

Up the road, at the hospital, the vibe was “controlled chaos,” say paramedic Tim Oh. In all, 18 people were treated for hypothermia in the hospital. Three were transported to area hospitals for further treatment. Oh can’t shake the image of survivors who learned their family members had not made it: “It’s hard not to go to them, to comfort them.”

But there were also beautiful moments, like when Windover brought Dirk Barchfeld into the hospital room where his brother was being cared for: Neither was aware the other had survived. “An ocean of anxiety fell off me,” Dirk Barchfeld recalls. “It was the most freeing feeling.”

Christian was so bruised—black and blue all over his arms and legs—from trying to punch his way out of the boat, doctors initially refused to release him, wanting to keep him overnight for observation. They relented, to allow him to retrieve his heart medication in neighbouring Ucluelet.

The brothers now refer to Oct. 25 as their “new birthday.” The two are polar opposites: Dirk is as gregarious and outgoing as Christian is shy and reserved. They loved each other deeply, but weren’t particularly close before the tragedy, Dirk Barchfeld explained after dinner at a Burgwedel restaurant. The accident has bonded them in a way they never knew was possible.

Kasha also feels forever changed. She feels the “Grim Reaper” is “two steps behind them.” Like the Barchfelds, she feels tremendous guilt for having survived: “I want to look at it like we have this second chance, but everything about that feels so wrong,” she says, in her northeast Calgary home. She thinks of those who lost their lives “every day.” Was it quick? Did they have someone with them at the end?

“There won’t be a day I don’t think about it,” McArthur says. “Every day, all day. As long we’re living and working in this community.”

To try to move forward, many families are looking for ways to repay their rescuers. Mazereeuw’s company, New Line Skateparks, is donating time and resources to build a skate park for Ahousaht youth. (He and Kasha are also donating money to help fund the project.) The Barchfeld brothers, who have formed a tight bond with rescuers Brown and Smith, have sent gifts, as have members of the Slater family. Jack’s niece, Tracy Binks, is raising funds for a literacy program at Tla-o-qui-aht through her Salford tea group. Every family is desperate to visit B.C., to thank the men and women of Ahousaht, Tofino, Tla-o-qui-aht.

At this point what went wrong is still not known. The complete Transportation Safety Board (TSB) accident report is not expected for months. An error by the skipper has not been ruled out. But nor is anyone suggesting it at this point. Could a rogue wave be blamed? Or an unstable load? Questions were raised about stability issues after the TSB reported that most passengers were on the top deck, on one side.

Ahousaht fisher and taxi boat operator Richard Little, who has spent 54 of his 59 years on the ocean, observed unusually rough seas and strange wave patterns that day, a day after hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane on record, spun off the coast of Mexico in the eastern Pacific, reaching speeds of 346 km/h (185 knots). Little believes the tail end of the hurricane’s path was impacting the Pacific all the way to B.C.

Boats sit idle at Jamie's Whale Watching Station in Tofino (Kevin Light/Reuters)

Whether any of this translates to legal responsibility may now be a matter for civilian courts to decide. Several survivors, including some not named in the story, are contemplating suits. They’ll wait, they say, to see what the TSB finds.

What is clear is the immense hole left in the lives of multiple families.

For Jack Slater’s daughters, there is a kind of double tragedy: Their father had left for Canada in 1972 after a bitter divorce when his three daughters were all under 10. Their mother moved frequently, and their dad disappeared from their lives.

For years, they’d believed he was dead, as their mom told them. It was only after a cousin contacted them on Facebook a few years ago that they learned the truth. For decades, Michele Slater Brown had been living just 90 minutes from her father, in Milton, Ont. He’d been looking for her and her sisters for years.

She burst into tears when she first saw him: “The connection was immediate.” He apologized. “But it wasn’t his fault. It was nobody’s fault. I wasn’t angry, at all.” She just ached for everything she missed, for all she’d lost in the years between.

“I always missed him,” she says. “I always thought of him.”

On a frigid December day, Jack’s daughters, Michele Brown, 52, Karen Clarke, 51, and Janine Lowe, 47, buried their dad in the Agecroft Cemetery in Salford, a gritty borough of Manchester, in northwest England; he is buried beside his parents, Jack and Nora and a tiny Canadian flag. The older he got, the more he missed England, he used to say.

“What’s always in my heart and my mind,” says Jack’s sister, Pat, speaking to Maclean’s from a nearby pub, where the family gathered to remember Jack, “is they’ve lost him twice.”

“We had so little time,” says Brown. She was just staring to to know the man she’d always yearned to see.

Correction: A previous version of this post suggested that transient orcas hunt for salmon in the summer. Transient orcas exclusively hunt marine mammals.

Reporter: Nancy Macdonald Editor: Dianna Symonds, Colin Campbell Photo editor: Natalie Castellino Art director: Stephen Gregory 
Digital production editor: Amanda Shendruk Video producer: Natalie Castellino Photographers: Adam Chilton (title image), Chad Hipolito/CP, Kevin Light/Reuters, Michael Danner/Getty Images, Crystal Schick, Jimmy Jeong, Ken Brown Videographers: Adam Chilton, Jimmy Jeong, Crystal Schick, Michael Danner/Getty Images & CP Video editor: Maggie Naylor