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Men rescued after tug flips

Four men were thrown into Skookumchuck Narrows on Sunday afternoon, July 19, when the 13-metre tugboat they were on suddenly flipped.

Four men were thrown into Skookumchuck Narrows on Sunday afternoon, July 19, when the 13-metre tugboat they were on suddenly flipped.

A shoreline witness said the dramatic accident was followed by tense minutes until a trapped crewman freed himself from under the capsized North Arm Venture.

"Is this going to be the day I watch someone drown?" is what Delia Carr remembered thinking as she watched another man in the water futilely banging on the upturned hull of the tug yelling, "One more. There's one more."

Carr said after "five minutes at the absolute minimum" the last man made his way clear of the tug.

"Everyone was cheering," Carr said. "There were lots of people watching. Your gut just curls right up standing there watching. You're helpless."

In the meantime, a kayaker waiting on shore for the tide to turn paddled out to tow another man thrown into the water to the loaded barge the tug had been pulling through the narrows.

The accident occurred around 12:50 p.m., roughly 40 minutes before the tide was due to change. When the tide changes, Sechelt Inlet seawater is forced through the narrow channel creating very strong currents, huge swells and other potentially dangerous water features. The tidal increase can be three metres high and force 200-billion gallons of water up to speeds of 32 kilometres per hour through the narrows.

Carr had hiked out to watch the tide change and, along with several others on shore, witnessed the tugboat capsize.

"If you blinked you missed it," she said. "It reared up in the front and all of a sudden it flipped. In the time it took me to say 'What the hell's he doing?' it flipped."

Carr said they knew something was wrong when a man standing on the barge being towed by the tug started to yell to get the crew's attention.

"A guy on the barge hollered twice and by the third time he hollered the boat was upside down," she recalled.

Carr said one swimmer then made his way to the barge and began to climb up a ladder on the side of it, but fell back into the water twice. Carr said she was running around trying to get cell phone reception to call 9-1-1, but failed.

That's when she spotted the "white wooden boat," which turned out to be a 16-metre tug, the Sea Imp X that "all of a sudden powered over."

She said the North Arm Venture was still upside down with smoke billowing out of it.

"[The Sea Imp X] arrived in 15 or so minutes and cleared the [boat and barge], and 20 minutes later the tide had changed," Carr said.

Peter Hewlett, general manager for North Arm Transportation Ltd. that owns the capsized tug, said the four crewmen are OK, though one was taken to hospital and checked for minor injuries.

"It's still under investigation by the transport safety board," said Hewlett. "They got there in the narrows and hit slick water and veered to one side."

He added the crew is experienced and, contrary to early reports, "There was no fuel on deck, just general freight."

The Sea Imp X towed the barge and capsized tug out of the channel to the north and into Killam Bay.

"The tug has now been righted and returned to Vancouver for repairs. There appears to be virtually no environmental damage to the surrounding area," said Gino Stradiotti, president for North Arm Transportation Ltd.

"Many of the people who provided assistance, including kayakers, pleasure boat operators and individuals on shore, are unknown to us and we extend our thanks to all. We would also like to thank Catherwood Towing, Mountain Marine Transportation, Fraser River Pile and Dredge, Hydra Marine Services, McAllister Marine and the Coast Guard for their professional assistance."