New details have emerged regarding the final moments of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCM-SAR) volunteers Angie Nemeth and Beatrice Sorensen, who died June 3 during a morning training exercise, after the tragedy’s first responder told his story to Coast Reporter.
“I wish everything would have worked out better,” said 31-year-old Theo Roose, who pulled two survivors from the fast-flowing currents of the Skookumchuck that day.
As a crew boat operator, Roose has made a living transporting workers to and from the Lafarge sand and gravel mine, which straddles the eastern shore opposite the rapids.
That Sunday morning, Roose was napping on standby when the Mayday call was relayed to him. Awakened, he ran to the 12-passenger crew vessel to respond.
First upon the scene, Roose found a Coast Guard coxswain straddling the capsized RCM-SAR Zodiac. Knocking on the boat with radio in hand, the man was attempting to determine whether there were occupants.
Roose pulled the survivor aboard his vessel and the two set out to look for the others. They travelled along the shore and explored areas protected by the small islands that buffer the rapids.
They came upon the second survivor, exhausted and separated from the capsized boat, before returning to the overturned Zodiac.
“He [had been] hanging on to the boat, but the currents were too strong. So he got pulled away,” Roose said. “That’s when we started looking for more people and a lot of boats started coming in at this time. We were driving around and not finding anyone, so we were a little scared.”
It was later revealed that Nemeth, 43, and fellow RCM-SAR volunteer Sorensen, 51, had perished, trapped below the capsized vessel.
The combination of factors including a full moon and high spring tides caused fast moving ebb currents to drain through the Skookumchuck that morning, turning the scene of the accident into a minefield of whirlpools and dangerous rapids.
The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said last week that an investigation had been launched after a safety device aboard the vessel failed to operate, a possibility confirmed by Roose.
One of the survivors had attempted to deploy the vessel’s righting device, an inflatable balloon contained on the aft of the Zodiac that was supposed to be activated by the pull of a cord.
“The gentleman couldn’t pull the cord to make it happen, so I lent him my vice grips to pull on it and it still wasn’t working,” Roose explained. “Everything was just failing and failing and failing.”
Responders had managed to bring the boat within the confines of a nearby bay while they attempted to flip it. Divers had also made it to the scene, one a local resident and the other an emergency responder who arrived by helicopter.
“He was going underneath and, um, when he came up, he … ,” struggled Roose. “He never brought anybody with him. He went under a couple times and he said he just couldn’t get them out … the boat was upside down, their survival suits and their PFDs filled up with air, kept them pinned in there.”
From beginning to end, he estimated that the situation lasted some 45 minutes.
A brief moment of optimism took hold of the responders when it was reported that a third person, one with a broken leg, had been retrieved.
A later media report said that person was Dave Gordon, a coxswain who had also been training that day and was injured by the oncoming currents while attempting to respond.
Paul Hansen, who takes tourists through the area for the West Coast Wilderness Lodge was there that day, before and after the tragic accident. According to him, the ebb tide had currents running between 11 and 13 knots that morning, or up to 25 km/h.
RCM-SAR president Randy Strandt said June 12 that investigations were ongoing, in addition to the TSB’s effort, to determine any causes or contributing factors in the events that led to the organization’s first fatalities.
“What we really don’t want to do is make preliminary communications or confirmations that turn out to be false. We want to make sure we have all the facts and make sure we are bringing correct statements before we release any,” Strandt said.