5 Britons killed after whale boat sinks off Vancouver Island

5 Britons killed after boat sinks off Vancouver Island; 1 person missing amid talk of big wave

TOFINO, British Columbia (AP) -- Investigators are trying to unravel the mystery of what caused a whale watching boat with 27 people on board to capsize off Vancouver Island in seemingly calm weather, killing five British nationals and leaving an Australian man missing. A fisherman who was among the first rescuers on the scene offered a clue, saying a survivor told him that a sudden wave capsized the boat.

Government Investigators have not commented on what caused the 20-meter (65-feet) Leviathan II to capsize on Sunday afternoon. A senior employee of Jamie's Whaling Station, the company operating the boat, said the vessel sank so quickly the crew didn't have time to issue a mayday call. The boat capsized about eight nautical miles (14.7 kilometers) off Tofino, a popular destination for whale watchers.

The company's director of operations, Corene Inouye, said the crew shot flares from the water which attracted the attention of local aboriginal fishermen who rushed to help rescue 21 people. Valerie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said late Monday that four of the survivors remained in hospitals in British Columbia and were all in stable condition.

Fisherman Clarence Smith said he was reeling his lines for halibut when his friend saw a flare shoot in the sky. They raced to the scene in their small boat, and saw people in life rafts, in the water, and on rocks. They first helped a man who was clinging to the side of the boat, taking eight minutes to get him on board. He was unresponsive, and tangled in a line.

Then they rescued two women who were clinging to each other, and finally got 10 people on the life raft onto their boat. Among those they picked up were a pregnant woman and a woman with a broken leg.

"The lady was saying that a wave just capsized them. That's why there weren't any communications on the radio, no mayday," Smith said.

Jamie Bray, the owner of Jamie's Whaling Station, said the boat sank in an area it goes to every day. He said he's had minimal contact with the crew and is cooperating with investigators to determine what caused the boat to flip over.

"This vessel has operated for 20 years with an absolutely perfect safety record. This is something just totally out of the blue," Bray said. "We just don't understand and we won't know the answers until the Transportation Safety Board finishes their investigations."

"We're all traumatized," Bray said, his voice shaking.

He said the passengers are not required to wear life jackets on larger ships like the Leviathan II.

It wasn't the first fatal accident on the whale watching company's record. In 1998 one of its vessels capsized during an excursion, sending all four people on board into the water. The operator and a passenger died. Bray said that vessel was struck by a rogue wave but said the latest incident involved a much larger boat.

Government investigators arrived Monday afternoon in Tofino, a remote community of about 2,000 people at the very tip of a peninsula some 200 miles (320 kilometers) northwest of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. But they hadn't yet spoken to the crew and passengers, said Marc Andre Poisson, Director of Marine Investigations for Canada's Transportation Safety Board.

Poisson said it's too early to say what caused the boat to capsize it or what the contributing factors might be. He said investigators will review the weather, wreckage and the boat's maintenance history. He said the vessel has been towed to a nearby island but remains mostly submerged. He said the investigation could take months.

"We're still at the early stages right now," he said.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police sent an underwater recovery team to search for the missing person, with assistance from the Coast Guard and local search and rescue personnel.

British and Australian consular officials were providing assistance to the families of the victims.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed in a statement that the five killed were U.K. nationals. "My thoughts are with the family and friends of all those affected by this terrible accident," Hammond said.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Tuesday confirmed that an Australian man was missing. Australian Associated Press reported that the 27 year-old Sydney man's family said he was on the boat with his girlfriend and her family when it sank. His girlfriend's father was among the dead, AAP said.

Barbara McLintock, a coroner's spokeswoman, said four men and one woman died and their ages ranged from 18 to 76. She said two of the Britons were residents of Canada. Their names were not released.

Boats from the nearby Ahoushat First Nation arrived first on the scene, said Robert Burridge, who estimated that every available vessel from the village helped in the rescue operation.

Canadian Prime Minister-designate Justin Trudeau thanked all those who participated in the rescue effort and offered his condolences to the victims and their families.

"I know firsthand of this coastal area's natural beauty and the many people who visit here from all around the world," said Trudeau, who won Canada's national election last week. "My thoughts and prayers are with the passengers, the crew, and their families at this most difficult time."

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Hainsworth reported from Vancouver. Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Greg Katz in London contributed to this report.