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Community response helped save 21 from sinking whale-watching boat off B.C.

Credit: CP.

TOFINO, B.C. — The rescue of 21 people from a whale-watching ship that sank Sunday off the west coast of Vancouver Island — with the loss of five lives — drew heavily on the resources of a native village.

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."

One person was still classified as missing on Monday afternoon.

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 where 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.

The tour boat with 24 passengers and three crew members on board sank about 15 kilometres northwest of Tofino, B.C.

Boats from the nearby First Nation that answered the ship's mayday call on Sunday around 4 p.m. found it partially submerged.

Some of the 21 people who were rescued were injured.

Valerie Wilson, with the Island Health authority, said four people remain in different hospitals around the province. All four people were listed in stable condition, she said.

There was no official indication on what might have caused the Leviathan II, a 20-metre long whale-watching boat, to sink. The Transportation Safety Board was expected to arrive Monday afternoon to begin an investigation.

Kelsey Rix and two other health-care workers were on a Tofino dock Monday morning preparing to leave for the village of Ahousaht.

The community health nurse said they would be checking on the well-being of those who tried to help people thrown into the water.

"The local First Nations were the first in the water and the first to pull out the victims," she said.

On Sunday, Ahousaht First Nation Coun. Tom Campbell was on the Tofino waterfront and watched as rescue personnel brought several of the survivors ashore.

"Their looks tell the whole story," he said by phone from Tofino. "You can't describe looks on people that are lost. They look totally lost — shocked and lost."

The Leviathan II belonged to a local whale watching company called Jamie's Whaling Station, which issued a statement saying its entire team was heartbroken by the tragedy.

"We are doing everything we can to assist our passengers and staff through this difficult time," owner Jamie Bray said. "We are co-operating with investigators to determine exactly what happened."

Bray also offered his thanks to those who first responded, Tofino residents and local First Nations communities that helped with the rescue.

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.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

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