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Five British nationals die when whale-watching boat sinks off B.C. coast

Credit: CP.

TOFINO, B.C. — All five people who died after a whale-watching ship sank off the west coast of Vancouver Island were British nationals, Britain's Foreign Office confirmed 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 Monday those who died 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.

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

First responders managed to rescue 21 passengers, some of them injured. The search for one person still missing was called off Sunday night.

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

Authorities have not said what might have caused the boat to sink.

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

The community health nurse said they'll 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.

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

Wilson said 18 other people aboard the vessel have been assessed, treated and released from hospital in Tofino.

Robert Burridge of Nanaimo, B.C., was in Ahousaht on Sunday afternoon and estimates that every available vessel 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."

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 20-metre boat — the Leviathan II — belonged to a local whale-watching company called Jamie's Whaling Station.

It issued a statement saying its entire team was heartbroken by the tragic day.

"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 first responders, Tofino residents and local First Nations communities that helped with the rescue.

The mayor of Tofino also commended locals for their contributions.

"Everybody's heart is just breaking for what's going on here and wanting to be as helpful as possible," Josie Osborne said by phone late Sunday.

Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, said the whale-watching community is in shock over the incident.

He said tour operaters 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.

Both Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau and B.C. Premier Christy Clark issued statements about the tragedy.

"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.

Investigators with the Transportation Safety Board were expected to be in Tofino by Monday afternoon.

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, salal and flowers from her garden to make the bouquet she left at the dock.

"This affects the whole town," she said.

— With files from Merita Ilo in Toronto

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Story updated 16:21.

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