SATURNA, B.C. — It was the sound of the float plane “crumpling” that sent James White rushing to his skiff to look for survivors of a crash he didn’t see but knew from that sound was devastating.
While he got into the picturesque Lyall Harbour, off Saturna Island, within minutes, the plane had already slipped beneath the water and there were only two people to be found from among the eight on board.
“There was no sign of anybody else or any other debris from the aircraft so I think it probably sank pretty fast,” White told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.
Six others, including an infant, were missing after the float plane crashed shortly after takeoff late Sunday afternoon.
White said he heard the engine of the plane making its regularly scheduled take-off from the harbour.
“Then I heard a kind of crumpling noise soon after that,” White said.
“So I went out onto my deck and I could see the wreckage of the plane just out on the water, not very far from where our house is on the shoreline on Saturna.”
White headed down to his dock and jumped in his small aluminum skiff in search of survivors.
“By the time I got onto my dock, the plane had disappeared. It had gone beneath the surface. So I got into my boat towards where I thought that I’d seen it and I saw two people in the water who were alive.”
He found a woman and the pilot close together in the water, both conscious and begging for help.
“From what I could see, he had a bad bash on his head and his arm was broken and he has some other injuries.”
White said he couldn’t guess if the female passenger had any injuries, but she was obviously cold and needed to get out of the water.
But White couldn’t pull the two of them into his small aluminum boat on his own. He said he tied them to the side of his vessel for a few minutes until other boats came to help.
White said the pilot didn’t say anything. When asked how many others were on board, he replied only that his load was full.
“I didn’t know what that was because I didn’t know whether he was flying a Beaver or a Cessna. . .There was nothing at all.”
White was quickly joined on the water by other volunteers, many of whom had been watching the Grey Cup at the Lighthouse Pub when word came that a plane had crashed.
Allen Olsen was one. He said he didn’t see the crash himself, but he rushed out to the government wharf as soon as he heard.
“We saw the plane was in the water, at a 45-degree angle with one wing in the water and the tail and other wing sticking out. The nose was in the water. We’re scrambling to get the nose ready, and turned around and looked and it had sunk,” the 62-year-old retiree said in a telephone interview.
“I thought we would run out there in our boats and rescue people off of pontoons or something, and the plane was gone.”
Olsen said by the time he got to the area where witnesses said they saw the crash, “all I saw was a little bit of oil slick and one piece of paper on the water and nothing else, no other debris that I can find. I didn’t see anything else. We looked for a while.”
He said the pilot was talking to rescuers, but both survivors were in bad shape after being pulled from the water.
“The pilot was in a lot of pain. He was in the water and he was screaming and moaning. He was conscious but he was in a lot of pain,” Olsen said.
The Seair float plane crashed around 4:30 p.m., said Cpl. Saralynn Hickey of the Victoria Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre.
“Two people have been rescued, one was the pilot, we’re still searching for the others,” she said.
“There was a total of eight persons on the aircraft, one of which was an infant.”
Hickey said it wasn’t clear what brought the plane down.
Search-and-rescue officials hadn’t yet located the aircraft, said Hickey.
She said several boats were on the water searching in the dark and following drift patterns, with a Cormorant helicopter searching from the air. Searchers were dropping illumination flares onto the water to light the area as they continued to comb the waters for the missing.
Olsen said two residents of Saturna Island were among the missing. He didn’t want to identify them but said they had been at the pub prior to boarding the plane, watching the football game.
“As you would expect, it’s just kind of disbelief that this could even happen. We were sitting right next to them in the pub and talking to them. They’re friends of ours,” he said.
Olsen said several emergency response personnel were at the pub at the time, and three of them came with him on his boat for the rescue effort.
“It was kind of fortunate in that regard because they just happened to be at the pub,” he said.
John Money said coast guard boats arrived on the scene incredibly quickly.
He and his son were also among the volunteers who jumped in their boats to help. Money heard about the crash when he was called by someone at the pub.
“They said a plane had just crashed and it’s terrible. I went down with my son and climbed in our boat and went out and started looking.”
When asked what he saw, he replied: “Nothing.” The plane had sunk too fast.
Money said he regards White as a hero.
Cpl. Darren Lagan of the RCMP said police and rescue officials were still contacting family members
of the missing.
“We certainly have the information on the manifest for the aircraft, nothing that we can share publicly at this point,” said Lagan.
“Our main focus is making contact with family members. We have had some family that’s called us.”
Christy Clarke of Vancouver-based Seair Seaplanes confirmed the plane belonged to the company, and said the aircraft was making a scheduled stop at Saturna to pick up two people on the way to Vancouver.
She said the company was still trying to confirm exactly what happened.
“Right now we don’t know what caused the incident,” said Clarke. “We’re just waiting it out right now.”
Saturna Island is located at the eastern edge of the Gulf Islands, more than 50 kilometres south of Vancouver.
Last year there were two fatal float plane crashes off the coast of British Columbia. In August 2008, five people were killed when a Pacific Coastal Airlines Grumman Goose crashed on Vancouver Island.
Then in November 2008, one man survived a crash that killed seven others on Thormanby Island, located between the B.C. mainland and northern Vancouver Island.