Ahousaht heroes save lives after whale watching boat capsizes

By Denise Titian, October 26, 2015
Tofino — 

Update: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 27, 2015

The BC Coroners Service has confirmed the identity of the five persons who died following the capsizing of a whale-watching boat west of Vancouver Island on Oct. 25, 2015. They are:

* Katie Taylor, aged 29, a British national who lived in Whistler, B.C.

* Jack Slater, aged 76, a British national who lived in Toronto, Ont.

* 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

Update: 7:13 p.m., Oct. 26, 2015

Peter Frank Jr. on heroic effort of Ahousaht rescuers

Peter Frank Jr., 33, was heading to Tofino with two passengers on a charter when he heard the Mayday. “I was just passing in front of Ahousaht when I heard my nephew Kenny (Brown); he sounded muffled, and he sounded excited, like something was wrong,” Frank said.

Frank, a married father of seven children, heard Brown's VHF messages in fragments.  “I heard him say something like ‘we're near the rocks’ or ‘we're on the rocks and we're low on fuel,’ said Frank. He said he assured Brown that he was on his way and was told that Brown was out at Bare (Cleland) Island.

Frank then apologized to his charter passengers, saying that they have no choice but to help out.

As Frank made his way to the accident site he believed that he was going to rescue his relative, but when he saw the big white bow of the Leviathan II bobbing in the waves he realized it was a bigger situation than he anticipated.

Unfamiliar with the Plover reefs where the Leviathan II went down, Frank reached out to fellow band member Francis Campbell and to the Coast Guard for directions through the reefs.

Once he cleared a set of reefs he saw Brown with a boat full of survivors.

“The waves were big and it was scary,” Frank said, adding that he had some difficulty getting to the other rescue boat.

Eventually, Brown led Frank out to calmer seas so that they could get the boats close enough together to safely transfer passengers.

Never having been in this type of situation before, an emotional Frank said he was scared, but he did his best to be the calm in the storm.

“You could see it all, their scared faces, makeup running down their cheeks; a man was yelling, 'my family, my family, my wife, she doesn't know how to swim; she's not the greatest swimmer and I didn't see her get on any boats.”

In time, as the survivors entered the comfort of the cabin, they began to calm down. “You could feel their sense of relief as they got on a big boat, and I reassured them, I told them who I was and told them the boat's been through pretty big seas and told them they'd be okay’,” Frank shared.

He offered them life jackets, making sure to tell them they had nothing to worry about but it was an offering to help them feel secure. They asked for blankets but all Frank had was old jackets from the boat's lost & found bin. “We were short one jacket so I took mine off and gave it to a lady who was shivering,” he said.

Brown offered to drive the boat through the dangerous reefs while Frank turned heaters on and reassured the nine survivors as they made their way back to Tofino.

Frank noted that in the open ocean where the Leviathan II went down the sea was big. It remained that way on their trip to Tofino until they reached the north side of Vargas Island; then it was flat calm. “You could see their eyes get big when we hit big waves,” said Frank, they were still terrified.

When things calmed down during the boat ride Frank said one of the survivors shared that they had been looking at a seal when all of a sudden, 'a wave picked us up and tumbled us then boom, boom, boom.'

Frank continued running the water taxi after the survivors were dropped off. He still gets emotional from the memory but says he gets support from his family.

 

Update at 6 p.m. Oct. 26, 2015

Ahousaht Ha'wiih have expressed support and condolences

The Ahousaht Ha’wiih express their deepest condolences and prayers to the survivors and the victims’ families for the strength to carry on and heal from this terrible tragedy. Prayers and loving thoughts are also with all of those that supported the rescue effort and that were impacted by this terrible tragedy.

The Ahousaht Ha’wiih also wish to recognize and express their heartfelt “Kleko Kleko’s” to the brave men and women of Ahousaht who did not hesitate to respond to this emergency. Our Ahousaht men and women risked their own personal safety to come to the immediate assistance of those passengers, crew and victims of the recent marine tragedy that struck off Tofino on Sunday.

Thank you for coming to the aid of our visitors always so courageously and promptly. Thank you for your continued commitment to the well-being and management of our hahoulthee.

Sincerely,

The Ahousaht Ha’wiih

Lewis George, Shawn Atleo, John Keitlah, Nate Charlie and James Swan.

Original story:

A serene Sunday afternoon whale watching trip turned tragic when the 65-foot Leviathan II was reportedly hit by a rogue wave, capsizing the boat and tossing its 27 passengers and crew members into the sea.

The triple decker boat was owned by Jamie’s Whaling Station based out of Tofino. The boat ran into trouble near Cleland Island roughly halfway between Tofino and Ahousaht on the open ocean side of the islands.

Survivors managed to fire a flare which was seen by Ahousaht fishermen who immediately went to their rescue.

Ken Brown, 37, is a family man with six children. On Sunday, Oct. 25 he was out halibut fishing with his friend Clarence Smith. “We went out at about 9 that morning and we were pulling in the longline when I caught sight of a flare going off behind us; it was about 3:15,” Smith said.

His friend Clarence turned around just in time to see the tail end of the flare. The men hauled their line in and made their way to the accident site.

Brown estimates they were about a half to quarter mile away from the accident scene. “We could see the rocks, and the bow of the boat but we couldn't tell what it was; the water was choppy even for our 21-foot fibre glass boat,” said Brown.

As the men got closer they thought they were seeing a sailboat up on the rocks. But they soon realized the accident was far bigger than what they thought it would be. As they drew near the sinking Leviathan II they spotted an emergency life raft with 10 people aboard.

The men began to approach the raft but the survivors directed them to people still in the water. “They pointed out a guy in the water and two ladies drifting between boat and the life raft. The life raft, said Brown, was between two reefs and being hit with eight foot swells; he worried they would be pushed into the rocks while the others were being saved.

The first to be rescued was an older man clinging to the Leviathan II. “We pulled him in but his ankle was tangled in a line still attached to the boat, so we had to cut him free,” said Brown.

Next, they went over to the women and pulled them in. “They were so cold they had nothing left; they were exhausted so we wrapped sweaters around their heads, chests and arms,” Brown said, adding that the two women were crying and shivering.

Somewhere along the line the men called for help on the VHF and it wasn't long before six other boats arrived to assist.

Brown and Smith went over to the life raft and took the survivors aboard their boat. It was about then when the next rescue boat came.

Peter Frank Jr. was running his father's water taxi when he heard the call for help. Brown said that their boat was overloaded with survivors so nine were transferred to the bigger, aluminum White Star.

Three of the 13 survivors that were rescued by Brown and Smith needed medical attention.

“One lady had a broken leg and two were pregnant,” said Brown, adding that the skipper stayed with this group to ensure that they got medical attention. “One lady kept saying thank you for saving us,” said Brown.

Within minutes five or six more rescue boats arrived. Brown said that he could hear women screaming behind some rocks and directed rescuers to them before rushing to Tofino with injured survivors.

A man from neighbouring Tla-o-qui-aht arrived on the scene, picking up three that didn't survive.

When asked how he felt after the rescue, Brown said, “I was shaken up, trembling, and my heart was heavy.”

The Village of Tofino is hosting a community dinner on Monday, Oct. 26 at the Tofino Community Hall. Brown and many other Ahousahts plan to attend.

Ahousaht elected Chief Greg Louie was rushing home Monday to provide support and leadership. He said seven boats with 30 Ahousaht people went out to help and said he is very proud of his people.

“They dropped everything to respond to this and they had to pull injured, shocked and in some cases, deceased people out of the ocean; and at 7 this morning they were out again, searching for the missing passenger,” said Louie.

Louie plans to attend the Tofino dinner. He said he has received calls from people offering to assist his community through the trauma.

“We will be making plans to get support for the people who need it,” said Louie.

The BC Coroner's Service confirmed five persons were deceased in the accident, with one still missing.

“The five persons were all British nationals and all were passengers aboard the boat, not crew members; three were tourists vacationing from Britain, and two were currently residing in Canada while retaining their status as British nationals. The female deceased was residing in British Columbia while one of the males was residing in Ontario.

In total, four of the confirmed deceased were males while one was female. The age range of the deceased is from 18 to 76 years of age.” -BC Cornoner's Service

The BC Coroners Service, RCMP and Transportation Safety Board continue to investigate.