'I felt hands coming and lifting my head up': First Nations leader recalls float plane crash

Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council president Judith Sayers remembers feeling hands pulling her head out of the water after the float plane she was in flipped over in Tofino Harbour during takeoff Monday morning.

She later learned it was her 31-year-old son Cole Sayers who helped his mother to safety after the plane flipped.

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When the plane flipped, Sayers was left hanging upside-down inside the aircraft with her head underwater, struggling to lift her head to take a breath.

Five people were in the Atleo River Air Services Cessna float plane, including Sayers, her son, two other passengers involved in a clean-energy project, and a pilot. They were on their way to Hesquiaht to view the project late Monday morning.

“We were taxiing out of the harbour and [the pilot] seemed to be having a really hard time getting out,” said Sayers, who is used to flying on larger float planes.

The plane started to climb but the ride was bumpy, she said.

“Then we started to tilt from side to side to side to side. Then I guess we flipped.”

“It was rough. I don’t know what was wrong.” The next thing Sayers knew, her head was in the water and she was trying to breathe. She was able to pull her head up to breathe a couple of times.

“But I guess water was spilling into the cab and I couldn’t do it anymore. … It just seemed like it was too much water.

“That’s when I felt some hands coming and lifting my head up. I learned later it was my son who lifted my head out of the water so I could breathe. “Then they managed to undo the seatbelt for me.”

Sayers speculates she may have fallen after that.

“The next thing I knew, they were trying to push me out the window on this plane. My son said the seat had been pushed up, [which] made it a little bit harder for me to squeeze through the window. But we managed to get me out and I was sitting on the wing of the plane getting my equilibrium.”

Boats were all around and the Canadian Coast Guard was there in just minutes, she said.

Sayers sat up and was walked to a rigid-hulled inflatable boat.

“I was really feeling dizzy.”

Pain alerted her to a leg injury that had left a swollen and bruised area, and her right rib was hurting.

The coast guard took everyone to shore and an ambulance arrived. “Apparently every single emergency services vehicle was at the scene because nobody really knew — they knew a plane flipped [but] they didn’t know what kind of injuries there were.”

Everyone had minor injuries and was taken to Tofino Hospital.

“They were so kind and so gentle and so considerate.”

When they arrived at hospital, she said, the doctors and nurses were lined up along the hallway. “Each of them grabbed one of us and started checking us out and making sure we were OK.”

Sayers spent two hours in the hospital, where she was X-rayed and received an ultrasound and the medical staff ensured she did not have any water in her lungs.

Other than sore ribs and her leg, “I’m alive and I’m so happy to be alive — that all of us walked out of there.”

Her son’s thumb was cut because the plane’s windshield shattered and his back and neck are sore.

Sayers said she is thankful for the coast guard, emergency personnel and medical staff at the hospital.

On Monday evening, Sayers — who is chancellor of Vancouver Island University and sits on the board of B.C. Ferries — stayed in a hotel in Tofino, waking up at 5 a.m. Tuesday and attending a three-hour meeting. Later, she was planning to head home to Port Alberni to take it easy.

The federal Transportation Safety Board is investigating. An airline spokesperson said Monday that the plane had hit a large boat wake as it was trying to take off.

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

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