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Moments after the marine radio crackled to life at 12:25 a.m. yesterday with a distress call announcing that a British Columbia ferry was on the rocks, the village of Hartley Bay sprang into action.

People tumbled out of their beds, pulled on their clothes and raced through a lashing rain squall for the small dock in the isolated community on B.C.'s rugged Central Coast, 140 kilometres southeast of Prince Rupert.

The men who had boats went to sea, in pitch blackness and not knowing exactly where they were headed, while those who remained behind were organized by women at the Hartley Bay native band community centre to get ready for survivors.

Nobody knew what to expect, but they knew they would do whatever they could.

What the rescuers saw when they reached the open waters of Wright Sound after a 20-minute ride across a dark, windy stretch of water was an image that left them shaken. There, just off the north end of rugged Gil Island, the massive Queen of the North, a ferry that can hold up to 700 people and 115 cars, was sinking, ablaze with lights. Drifting nearby were five life rafts lashed together, where most of the 101 passengers and crew were huddled in the rain.

"Just picture the Titanic," said Karl Fisher, a 16-year-old member of the Gitka'a'ata First Nation who was playing a late-night game of poker with friends when his mother burst in.

"She said the Queen of the North went up on shore, so we all just started running down to the boats and took off," Mr. Fisher said.

He jumped aboard the salmon gillnet boat Miss Yolande, skippered by Marty Dudoward, and arrived shortly after 1 a.m. at the scene of the marine disaster.

Another commercial fishing boat and four speedboats from the village of 200 were all converging on the scene.

"I just see the [ferry]boat floating there and all the lights are on. All the life rafts are all tied up together, drifting away," Mr. Fisher said. "Then it started sinking and it just kept going. ..... You could just hear all the cars in the car port crashing down on each other. When it went straight up and down you could hear every one just hit. It was loud.

"It went pretty fast ..... it just went right into the water. Everything went black after that. It got dark," he said.

"After it sunk, it was just a bunch of smoke and everything. ..... It was pretty creepy."

He said people watched the ferry go down in silence. It was as if they were holding their breath.

One of the first rescuers on the scene was Danny Danes, who had been getting ready for bed when he heard the distress calls.

He woke his wife, Mona Danes, pulled on a survival suit and raced to the dock where his five-metre speedboat, SEP, was moored.

Pushed by a 90-horsepower outboard motor, his was the second boat to arrive. It was so dark on the trip there that the boat ahead of him almost struck Gil Island before it came up alongside the life rafts.

"Who's in charge here?" Mr. Danes called out to the survivors, who were surprised to see a boat come out of the darkness in the middle of nowhere.

He said a man who he took to be the captain said he was in command.

"I talked to the captain there, in the life rafts. I said 'You should get some of these kids and the older people ashore. Hartley Bay is not too far from here. People are getting ready there.'

"It was blowing out and that's what scared me with all those people in the life rafts," said Mr. Danes, who runs the salmon hatchery in Hartley Bay.

"He said 'You're right.' So we got four adults and four kids. I started running in and ..... before we got in the mouth of the pass, running in the dark, these guys said: 'Hey look! It's gone!'-"

When he looked back, the 125-metre-long Queen of the North, which was on an overnight sailing down the Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, had vanished.

"She'd sunk. Just like that," Mr. Danes said. It was 1:40 a.m.

He said one crew member told of seeing the shoreline loom up just before the collision that sunk the ferry. "She said she could see land going by. Just after that she heard this 'crunch-crunch-crunch' and then right after that another 'crunch-crunch-crunch' ripping the hull open ... she said right away there was water so she just got the hell out of there," Mr. Danes said.

The ferry went down near a rocky shoreline where steep mountains plunge into the sea.

"I'll tell you, it's a big miracle [they survived]" said Mr. Danes, who thinks the ferry sank in about 180 fathoms (about 330 metres).

Marven Robinson, who was in one of the first boats from Hartley Bay to reach the rafts, said he spoke to a crew member who was smacked in the head by part of the boat when the bulkhead smashed into a rock or something else.

The crew member was asleep in a stateroom under the car deck. The first bang woke her up. Then there was a second bang. It pushed the ship's bulkhead into her head as she lay in her bed. She quickly ran out of the room.

Another crew member said he jumped out of bed when he saw cracks on the bulkhead. As he put his foot on the floor, he was suddenly in water up to his waist.

Everyone was in the rafts less than a kilometre from the ship when the Hartley Bay rescuers arrived, Mr. Robinson said. The ship was leaning to one side, with about three-quarters of the vessel sticking out of the water. The boat then straightened up and, in a flash, was swallowed up by the sea. Two huge objects shot about 20 metres up in the air as the ship went down.

"It sounded like a freight train going by. And then in seconds it was gone," he said.

The boats from Hartley Bay eventually shuttled 64 people back to the community. Other survivors were taken aboard the Coast Guard vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which was on scene by 2:15 a.m.

In Hartley Bay, Mona Danes and others had gathered at the community hall.

She was the first there, arriving about 12:30. But soon others were streaming in. They came carrying blankets, extra clothing, pots of hot coffee and food.

"Hartley Bay is awesome," Ms. Danes said. "We just pulled together ... the whole community responded."

One survivor came in with a bad cut on her head. A man seemed to have a broken arm. Children were crying. Many were soaking wet.

With the nursing station in Hartley Bay vacant, people with first-aid training were called on to treat injuries.

Jessel Bolton, a wood carver and sport fishing guide, said he became aware of the emergency when he heard ATVs racing through the streets.

"When you hear that sound, you know something is wrong, so I got up and turned on the marine channel," Mr. Bolton said.

He gathered up blankets and waited at the dock.

Most of those coming ashore were slightly stunned, he said. "I think they were shocked about what happened and happy to be alive."

Helen Clifton, 80, heard the whole drama unfold over her radio phone. "We heard them say they were abandoning the ship," she said in an interview as the passengers were leaving the village yesterday to be transported to Prince Rupert.

Ms. Clifton said when the rescuers first arrived, the coast guard asked them to wait 20 minutes, until they arrived, before taking passengers aboard.

"We were amazed," Ms. Clifton said. "You have passengers that were panicking, in shock and wanting to get ashore where it was safe and they were asked to wait.

"I don't know why I should be quiet about that. I found it very strange ..... you cannot ask people to wait. Some had little children. I seen one woman packing a baby, possibly a year old, and another with a young family there," she said.

Two speed boats, however, went back to shore with rescued passengers before the coast guard arrived.

Villagers still cannot understand how the ferry sank. The 9,000- tonne Queen of the North is one of the biggest boats serving the coastal communities.

"It's supposed to be a safe boat. We just cannot believe this happened ... You have a village here that is in shock," Ms. Clifton said.