Workers tear down the Pacific Rim National Park’s surf guard tower after the local lifeguard program was terminated due to budget cuts in 2012. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

UPDATE: Woman who died in ocean accident near Tofino was in town for daughter’s wedding

“We are so thankful to everyone who helped our mom.”

Tofino police have confirmed that a 52 year-old woman died after an ocean accident off Long Beach near Tofino on Sunday morning.

Cpl. Stu Hert of the Tofino RCMP told the Westerly News police received a report of a woman in distress in the water near Lovekin Rock around 10:30 a.m.

“By the time emergency services arrived, people in the area, and other surfers, had assisted in removing her from the water and First Aid was rendered, however she did not survive,” Hert said adding the woman was not a local resident.

He said no foul play is suspected and added that locals and visitors must be aware of the risks posed by the ocean.

“Beaches in Tofino area are unsupervised. People are responsible for their own safety and part of that is being aware that the ocean is unpredictable. The rip currents, the waves, all of that is unpredictable and it goes a long way to educate yourself about some of the common risks so you can try to avoid them.”

Police have not released the identity of the woman, but Okanagan resident Victoria Emon told the Westerly News the woman was her mother, Ann Wittenberg, and that the family was visiting Tofino for Emon’s wedding, which was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

“She came from Ottawa to be here…She was so excited. Her and my sister were just floating talking about how much fun they were having and then they got sucked in,” Emon told the Westerly News.

“We are so thankful to everyone who helped our mom…They prayed for my mom on the beach. They kept my sister warm and they risked their lives so that we could have my mom back. We are forever grateful. I’m especially grateful for Ellen and her friend who kept my baby sister safe. That’s all my mom would have wanted.”

She said she and her new husband went ahead with the wedding because, “Mom wanted us to.”

David Jensen was one of the bystanders who helped pull the woman from the ocean on Sunday morning and he is urging Tofino, Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to bring lifeguards back to Long Beach.

Jensen a former local who now lives near Errington and visits the West Coast frequently to surf, told the Westerly News that he was out for a paddle off Long Beach when he heard someone in distress.

“I heard somebody screaming, and not that fun kind of scream,” Jensen said adding he immediately began paddling towards where the sound came from around Lovekin Rock. “It was an obscured view because of the waves and I was a distance away…I paddled close enough to see there was a couple surfer guys who were helping somebody that was lying face down in the water. At that time and tide, that place is a very dangerous spot so those guys had put themselves in harm’s way to try to help this person.”

He said he made his way to the spot and helped the other two surfers trying to assist a woman who, he said, was unresponsive.

“The only thing going through my mind at that point was that this was her last chance, with the three of us that were there…We were trying our best; that’s all I can say,” he said. “We tried to get her onto the board, fighting the waves. The waves just knocked us around and knocked us around. We couldn’t get out of the break due to the current. That’s just the nature of that spot.”

RELATED: Bring back the surf guard tower – opinion

He said it took roughly 15 minutes to get the woman onto the beach where a bystander performed CPR before paramedics arrived minutes later and transported the woman away in an ambulance.

Jensen said the incident could have been prevented if the surf guard tower that was torn down in 2012, was still in place. The surf guard program involved four lifeguards watching over Long Beach from the tower, located near Lovekin Rock, and it had been in place for roughly 40 years before being removed by the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve due to budget cuts in 2012.

Jensen said lifeguards would have immediately steered the surfer he helped try to rescue on Sunday away from Lovekin before the incident occurred.

“If there was a manned lifeguard tower there, that would have never happened today. That would have been stopped before that critical situation,” he said.

He added there are signs at Long Beach’s trail-heads warning surfers about the dangers of both Lovekin and Incinerator Rock, especially during low tide, but it routinely falls on seasoned surfers in the area to keep novice surfers who did not read the signs away from danger.

RELATED: Man dies in surfing accident near Tofino

“A lot of times, like a day like today where it’s only one-meter, it’s usually tame, unless it’s at low tide and what happens at low tide is it becomes a very dangerous place,” he said. “Incinerator Rock and Lovekin Rock are, by far, the most dangerous places to surf for new people on this coast.”

A University of Victoria student died after a surfing accident near Lovekin Rock on Feb. 10.

Jensen said reviving the Park Reserve’s surf guard program should be a top priority as the area’s surfing popularity continues to skyrocket.

“I’ve seen the changes over the last 25 years out on the coast, going from two surf shops and a handful of surfers and old boys to just an explosion. The beach is packed with surfers. There’s surf shops everywhere and all surf culture stuff. It’s a huge part of the economy now,” he said. “It’s keeping food on the table for a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.”

He said Sunday’s incident was preventable and that Tofino and Ucluelet’s councils and businesses should collaborate with the Park Reserve to bring lifeguards back to the beach.

“It would be beautiful if these towns could get together and be proactive with the Park and get this done. Because it’s going to happen again,” he said. “What I really want is for those two towns to be able to see this problem in black and white and just do something about it. Please. It’s overdue.”

Two local surf instructors urged Tofino’s municipal council to put a lifeguard program in place during an August 23 council meeting last year.

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