SATURNA, B.C. – Residents gathered at the local pub to watch the Grey Cup game on Sunday rushed to their boats after seeing a float plane crash into the harbour of this community in B.C.’s Gulf Islands, plucking the pilot and a passenger from the frigid waters.
But the rescuers were left searching for six others, including a baby that was among the eight on board the Seair plane when it crashed into Lyall Harbour, off Saturna Island, on Sunday afternoon.
Allen Olsen was one of the many residents gathered at the Lighthouse Pub. While he didn’t see the crash himself, he rushed out to the government wharf as soon as he heard.
Olsen said he saw the plane in the water, but not for long.
“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 told The Canadian Press in an 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 the two boats that arrived at the scene first pulled the pilot and a woman out of the water with some difficulty. He said he went and tried to check the area where witnesses saw the plane.
“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 appears the plane had just taken off from Saturna when it crashed. 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.
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.