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Tofino boat rescue triggered by single flare that almost wasn't seen

CBC logo CBC 2015-10-27 Lisa Johnson and On The Island

Since he pulled 13 survivors out of the water off Tofino on Sunday, Ken Brown has thought a lot about what would have happened, if he hadn't seen the flare.

Brown and his partner, Clarence Smith, were fishing grounds they never fished, facing Vargas Island off Tofino.

As they were pulling in their halibut long-line, Brown happened to turn around, and saw in the sky a single flare — the only signal anyone could send from the capsized wreckage of the MV Leviathan II, which flipped so quickly there was no time for mayday..

"I knew what it was right away. I knew people were in distress and somebody needed help," said Brown, an Ahousaht fisherman.

He yelled to Smith, who saw the flare falling, and the pair pulled in some 200 metres of fishing line to scramble to the scene.

'Get this lady out of the water — she's pregnant'

What Brown didn't know was the scale of the emergency. At first, the triangle shape on the horizon looked like a sailboat, grounded on a reef.

As they got closer, five or ten minutes after the flare, the pair realized it was the bow of the 20-metre Leviathan, one of the biggest tourist vessels in the area.

"There was people screaming, you could hear a lady screaming on the rocks," said Brown.

Three people waved from an inflatable emergency raft that bobbed in the water, one waving a paddle in the air, as waves continued to crash.

As they reached yelling distance, those on the raft screamed to the rescuers to help people still stuck on the wreck.

"'Go help them! There's people, they need your help!,'" Brown remembers them saying.

One man, his ankle wrapped in green fishing line that was dragging him into the water, was "hanging on for dear life" to the vessel, said Brown. He and Smith cut the man free.

Ahousaht fisherman Ken Brown saw the single flare sent up by the crew of the MV Leviathan II after it capsized, triggering the rescue of 21 people. © CBC Ahousaht fisherman Ken Brown saw the single flare sent up by the crew of the MV Leviathan II after it capsized, triggering the rescue of 21 people.

"If we didn't get that guy, that line that was wrapped around his ankle, he wouldn't have been able to free himself from that boat. I said I don't think that guy would have made it."

Two women were swimming between the sunken boat and the raft, one with a life jacket, who told them to help the other woman first.

"She said this lady is pregnant and my leg is broken, but I want you to get this lady out of the water — she's pregnant."

21 survivors rescued

Ten others piled onto Brown's boat from the emergency raft, making 13 soaking survivors on the small fishing vessel.

By then, larger boats — who heard the fishermen's distress call — had arrived to help rescue a total of 21 survivors, and pull the bodies of five people from the water.

Brown and Smith covered the quiet, shivering people with every piece of clothing from their vessel.

He's thankful his partner "twisted his arm" to fish that area, that day.

And, that he turned around, at the very moment the single flare — scrounged from that emergency raft — was in the sky.

Does he think about what might have happened, if he didn't?

"Yeah, I had all night to think about it."

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