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Maritime safety owes debt to Valencia victims
Seattle Times staff columnist
It was the worst maritime disaster on the west coast of Vancouver Island, which is saying something.
That stretch of churning waters and jagged coast remains one of the deadliest in the world, known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific." Of the 164 passengers who set off from San Francisco to Victoria on the S.S. Valencia in January 1906, only 38 survived after the ship went off course and ran into the rocks.
More than half of them were from Seattle. One who survived was F.F. Bunker, then the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. He earned hero status when he made it off the steamship into stormy seas and climbed the cliffs to a telegraph trail. He made his way to a linesman's cabin, where he alerted a lighthouse of the wreck.
Three ships responded, but could do nothing: The Valencia was impaled on rocks at the base of the cliffs.
All the women and children died. Reporters from The Seattle Times to The New York Times descended on the tiny village of Bamfield, south of Tofino, to chronicle the bone-chilling loss.
Six years later, the sinking of the Titanic, with a passenger list that read like the stock and society pages, would capture the world's attention.
But it was the wreck of the Valencia that inspired the growth of Canadian Coast Guard stations and the construction of the Pachena Lighthouse. And, in 1907, Bamfield received the first engine-powered lifesaving boat in the world.
All these things will be honored Jan. 20-22 when Bamfield commemorates the tragedy with a weekend of events, including field trips, an art show and a memorial service.
The hard part for Bamfield's Anne Weiler Brown, one of the organizers, has been tracking descendants of the survivors. Women and children were the first to step onto the doomed lifeboats.
"The Valencia had the prominence of the Titanic," she said, "but because it wasn't in the United States, people just don't know."
So far, Weiler Brown has found descendants of those who helped with the rescue.
They and others who come up for the weekend will hear some interesting tales: In 1933, the Valencia's No. 5 lifeboat reportedly was found drifting off Vancouver Island's Barkley Sound, its paint still good despite decades of exposure. And, more than once, fishermen reported seeing Valencia lifeboats, manned by skeletons.
But what we know for sure is that the true legacy of the Valencia is not only 126 lives lost, but the countless saved by the lessons learned.
Nicole Brodeur's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
She's hoping the school district
still has a hero at the helm.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company