03/27/2012 08:07 EDT | Updated 05/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia Yacht Rescue: One Dead, Two Injured After Rescue

YARMOUTH, N.S. - A large search-and-rescue operation off the coast of Nova Scotia for three people missing from a stricken yacht took a twist Tuesday when the federal government announced it's investigating whether the boat was involved in human smuggling.

One man who was pulled from the Atlantic Ocean early Tuesday morning by search-and-rescue technicians was later pronounced dead, while five others were rescued.

A search for three other people who were on board the SV Tabasco 2 had been called off by early evening Tuesday and turned over to the RCMP as a missing persons case.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says a number of people who were rescued from the yacht, which experienced mechanical problems about 150 kilometres south of Cape Sable Island, have claimed refugee status and the incident is being treated as a suspected case of human smuggling.

In a statement, Toews does not say how many of the five people who were rescued have claimed refugee status, but he used the incident to push for passage of a new immigration law.

"This tragedy highlights the need for speedy passage of the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act," he said. "There is an enormous and unnecessary risk involved with the act of human smuggling. Our government's message is clear to those contemplating a human smuggling operation — don't do it."

The boat issued a distress call after running into trouble at about 10:30 p.m. Monday. The crew of a Cormorant helicopter plucked three men from the water.

Lt.-Col. Guy Leblanc, co-pilot of the Cormorant helicopter, said a technician was lowered down to the small sailboat as 10-metre swells and winds gusting up to 90 kilometres an hour whipped up the waters around them sometime after they arrived at 3 a.m.

"There were pretty demanding conditions for my crew," he said in an interview from 14 Wing Greenwood before heading off for some food and sleep.

"We made it work, but it was not pretty and it was very demanding."

Leblanc said the three men he took on board appeared to be in their 40s and were from Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. The military said everyone who was on board the yacht is believed to be a foreign national.

Three of the men were taken aboard the tanker FSL Hamburg, which was headed to Saint John, N.B. A military official in Halifax said they were able to get on the tanker because they weren't injured, but stayed on site to make sure the others were rescued by the Cormorant.

The search continued for the three missing sailors who were not thought to be wearing survival suits in the frigid waters when they went overboard at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Military officials had said they did not know where the vessel was from, where it was going or what it was doing at sea at the time it sent the distress call.

Sub-Lt. Tania Meloni of the search-and-rescue centre said crews were contending with low clouds while searching for the missing men. Meloni said they were reportedly wearing life-jackets.

A Cormorant, Hercules and a Canadian Coast Guard cutter had scanned the area, but had not spotted any sign of the men.

Leblanc's crew hoisted all three men onto the helicopter, with two suffering from hypothermia, broken bones and cuts. The third was unresponsive and later pronounced dead at hospital.

Leblanc said the survivors spoke very little after they were lifted aboard and wrapped in blankets to try to warm them up, though one man showed his appreciation for the difficult rescue.

"He was smiling and just kept saying, 'Thank you very much,' " he said. "He didn't talk about where they were going or what they were doing out there."

Capt. Bertrand Thibodeau, the pilot of a Hercules involved in the search early Tuesday, agreed that the conditions were some of the harshest he'd seen.

"They were definitely rough conditions because there were a lot of things playing against us," he said.

"Between the low ceilings, the very strong winds, the high sea states, the fact that it's nighttime so we're restricted in what we can see and the icing on the plane ... it was really bad weather."

The Hercules did sweeping searches through a square pattern, finding flotation devices and an empty life-raft but no sign of the yacht.

It provided illumination for the Cormorant as it raised the men from the vessel, which Leblanc said looked severely damaged and appeared to be stripped of its mast.

"It definitely would have been a difficult hoist," Thibodeau said, adding that the vessel was rocking side-to-side as it rose and fell in the pounding swells, at one point veering up at a 90-degree angle.

The two injured and the body of the dead man were taken to a hospital in Yarmouth, N.S.

Fraser Mooney, a spokesman at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, said the two injured men arrived by ambulance sometime before 8 a.m. after being flown to the local airport. He said they were in fair condition, but couldn't release details about their identities or ages.

RCMP Sgt. Tom Murdock said the Mounties were investigating the incident because it involved a sudden death.

— By Alison Auld in Halifax