A year later: pain from Tofino whale-boat tragedy remains

A year later: pain from Tofino whale-boat tragedy remains - image

VICTORIA – Entire communities have been honoured, individuals cited for heroism and boats blessed, but one year after the sinking of a whale-watching vessel off British Columbia that tossed 27 people into the churning Pacific, the wounds have barely started to heal.

Five Britons and one Australian died on Oct. 25, 2015, when the 20-metre Leviathan II capsized in waters near Tofino, about 320 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

The cause of the tragedy remains under investigation. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada is expected to release its report next year.

In the days immediately following the sinking, TSB investigators said most passengers and crew were on the top deck of the vessel’s port side, when a wave hit the starboard side. The vessel tilted up, rolled and capsized, said the TSB.

Survivors described being thrown into the ocean without life jackets, grabbing hold of a single life ring that floated in the waves.

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Others expressed their fear at being in the bottom of the sinking boat and thrown about like laundry in a washing machine.

Rescuers from the nearby First Nations village of Ahousaht raced to help in boats after seeing a single emergency flare.

READ MORE: Tofino First Nations honored for whale-watching tragedy rescue effort

Families of those who died say the pain of their loss hasn’t faded.

“I feel just as sad today as I did last year,” said Michele Slater Brown of Milton, Ont., whose father Jack Slater, 76, a British national living Toronto, died in the sinking.

“This has affected me more than any other single event ever in my life.”

Brown said she will not be in Tofino on Tuesday for a ceremony to honour the victims one year after the sinking. Relatives and loved ones of the other victims are expected to attend the ceremony, which includes unveiling a plaque.

David Thomas, 50, and his 18 year-old son Stephen, both from Swindon, England; Katie Taylor, a 29-year-old Briton living in Whistler, B.C., and 63-year-old Nigel Hooker of Southampton, England, also died in the sinking. Surfers found the body of Australian tourist Raveshan Morgan Pillay, 27, weeks after the boat capsized.

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Survivor Dwayne Mazereeuw, 36, of Calgary, described how he and his wife Elisa, 34, survived by clutching a life ring for more than 30 minutes in frigid waters before being pulled to safety by rescuers.

READ MORE: Jamie’s Whaling Station vessel run aground near Tofino, all passengers safe

Mazereeuw, a skate-park designer, helped mount an effort to build a skate-park in Ahousaht for the village’s at-risk youth to repay those who saved him and his wife. The park’s ground-breaking ceremony is set for Monday.

Ahousaht Deputy Chief Patti Campbell said the park is generating excitement in a community where many are still recovering from the sinking even though band members have been called heroes.

“Some of them have reached out for help,” she said. “Some of them ended up a little bit fearful of the water. But we need the water to get to and from town and it’s a fear they had to adjust to quickly.”

Michelle Campbell said she and her husband, Francis, were one of the first boats on the scene.

READ MORE: Whale-watching tour company calls fatal capsizing in Tofino an ‘act of God’

“I’m never going to forget it. Ever,” she said.

Prof. Tim Black, a post-traumatic stress disorder expert at the University of Victoria, said there are similarities between the Tofino tragedy and the 2013 train explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Que. Lac-Megantic, like Tofino, is a small town that suffered great loss and trauma and the emotional toll can be lasting, he said.

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“People know each other,” said Black. “People know the friend of the person who was driving the boat. With these close, personal relationships, it can affect a community for sure.”

German brothers Christian and Dirk Barchfeld, survived the sinking, and cite PTSD in a class-action lawsuit filed in B.C. Supreme Court.

The lawsuit names the boat’s operators, Jamie’s Whaling Station; owner Jamie Bray and ship’s captain Wayne Dolby, alleging negligence and personal, physical and psychological injuries.

The defendants in the civil response deny allegations of negligence and suggest any loss, injury or damage could be the result of an “act of God.”

Five other civil actions involving 34 surviving family members and loved ones have been filed in Federal Court claiming personal injury and loss of life.

None of the allegations in the lawsuits have been proven in court.

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne said the release of the Transportation Safety Board report could provide answers and speed up the healing process.

New Democrat Scott Fraser, who represents Tofino in B.C.’s legislature, said the sinking was one of the darkest days in his constituency.

“The loss of so many lives in a small community, it’s profound and it’s deep,” he said.

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Campbell said the Leviathan II sinking brought out the best in her community but left scars.

“We’re grateful for all the lives that were saved, for all the rescuers that helped from Ahousaht from Tla-o-qui-aht (First Nation) from Tofino, and I genuinely hope everyone heals as much as they can,” she said.

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