Memorial Service, Seair Float plane crash, one year on.
At the anniversary of the incident, held at Saturna Island’s Community Hall, with both survivors present, bereaved family members and most of the emergency responders who participated; Saturna Fire Chief John Wiznuk gave this retelling of the event.
On Sunday, Nov.29, 2009, a group of Saturna Islanders were at the Lighthouse Pub watching the Grey Cup on the big screen. The Seair regular float plane service from the islands taxied away from the Government Wharf and was trying to take off when people on the Pub deck noticed the takeoff go terribly wrong. The De Havilland Beaver carrying eight passengers crashed into the waters of Lyall Harbour. The game was instantly forgotten as people scrambled out of the Pub, some unable to believe what had just happened, others already developing plans of action.
Some ran to the Government Dock floats to cast off boats secured there. Wesley Paulin, Peter Clark and Kevin O’Hara ran to Bryan Haley’s float where they knew there was an inflatable boat with a motor and key nearby to be used in case of emergency. These three headed toward the downed aircraft within minutes while others broke into boats at the Government wharf to do the same. On the north side of Lyall Harbour James White had seen the crash from his home and went quickly down the path to his dock and launched his aluminum skiff. To the surprise and horror of all responding and watching, the aircraft quickly disappeared beneath the water. Two heads were spotted in the waves the pilot, Francois, and one passenger, Barbara, seriously injured, without pfd’s and at the end of their strength.
Meanwhile, the 911 call had been made, the emergency responders had been paged out and we were trying to figure out exactly what had happened, where and to whom, from the cryptic message broadcast by our dispatch.
My knowledge of the events happening on the water is sketchy so if I differ from what you know I’ll ask forgiveness now. My understanding is that the aluminum skiff with James White reached the survivors first with Wes, Peter and Kevin in the inflatable close behind, Peter Clark transferred to James’ skiff and they took Francois, Wes and Kevin took Barbara. Francois was too large and too badly injured to get into the skiff. Peter, a young man half the pilot’s size, hung on to him, half in the water over the skiff’s gunwhale as James slowly maneuvered the boat to a nearby dock. There with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxilliary 20 rescue boat from Pender Island, which had arrived within 15 minutes of the page out, and Saturna Fire Fighters, Francois was put on a spine board, lifted from the water, carried up a steep narrow path and taken by SIVFD vehicle to the Winter Cove helipad and airevaced by BC Ambulance Service helicopter. That’s where I was and I remember a whirl of people and action. If I were to name names we might be here all day there were so many trying to help. You know who you are, thank you. Wes and Kevin got Barbara into the boat, put a pfd on her and got her to the Government Dock where David Rees-Thomas, Amanda Pearson and the Saturna Island Rescue vehicle were standing by. Barbara was taken to the Saturna Clinic, warmed up and then airevaced.
By this time there were several boats, Coast Guard and private craft, at the site searching, crisscrossing the water hoping, indeed willing there to be more survivors. We could not make ourselves believe that there were only two to save.
The Firefighters regrouped at Fire Hall #1 got a sandwich, a coffee, radios and at the request of Corporal Linda Simpson, Southern Gulf Islands RCMP detachment began a ground search of the houses and shoreline along Lyall Harbor, Winter Cove Road, Church Bay Road, and Winter Cove Park. The residents and nieghbours of this area joined with us in the search while boats continued to patrol in Lyall Harbour.
Night came on and we were joined by Canadian Forces Search and Rescue aircraft from CFB Comox. A fixed wing Buffalo aircraft flew a tight “racetrack’ oval pattern in the sky overhead, dropping parachute flares with pinpoint precision to light the search. No one who was there that night will forget the nearly full moon and those flares drifting down in to the water. A Cormorant Rescue helicopter, with Canadian Forces search and rescue technicians aboard, flew a tree top level search pattern. Nothing was held back, everything that could be done was being done, we all so wanted a different outcome from that which was becoming evident.
The Firefighters returned to Hall #1 where the Emergency Operations Center had been set up. Staffed by volunteers from Saturna and Pender Islands and directed by Ian Elliot, it had been working within an hour of the alarm directing the response, providing for the responders, managing all the resources that had come together to help. By 11:30 the Saturna Firefighters were released and after seven hours went home. No one had complained, no one had questioned why, all had given freely.
The EOC staff and RCMP stayed on through the night and into the next day. That morning the island awoke to the full weight of the tragedy we had lived through, tempered by the knowledge that we had given what we could when called to help.
Fire Chief, Saturna Island Volunteer Fire Department