Captain of B.C. ferry that sank after crew allegedly had sex on bridge makes case for what caused disaster
The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story
By Colin Henthorne
When the B.C. Ferry Queen of the North left Prince Rupert at 8:00 p.m., March 21 in 2006, it seemed like the beginning of just another routine run south to Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island, a cruise through the relatively sheltered waters of B.C.’s fabled Inside Passage.
But in the early hours of March 22, the Queen struck an underwater ridge off of Gil Island, jagged rocks that tore open the hull of the vessel as it surged across the ridge into Wright Sound, where it sank 427 meters to the bottom.
The crew, ably and heroically assisted by the Gitka’a’ata people of nearby Hartley Bay, who responded to radioed Mayday calls by putting out onto dark waters from the village in small boats, and by the Canadian Coast Guard’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier, safely evacuated the ship. After some confusion about head counts, rescuers determined that 99 people had been safely taken off the Queen of the North, although 101 had been aboard when the ship left Prince Rupert. Eventually, the missing were identified as Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy, who were presumed lost that night.
Karl Lilgert, the ship’s fourth officer, in charge of the bridge that night, was eventually convicted of criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to four years imprisonment. Quartermaster Karen Briker, who was on the bridge with Lilgert, was fired by B.C. Ferries amidst rumours that she and Lilgert, who had previously had an affair, were either quarrelling or having sex during a crucial 14 minute period after the Queen of the North passed Sainty Point (where one of the course changes involved in navigating the Inside Passage was usually implemented) until the craft went aground on the rocks of Gil Island.
Both crew members denied any such misconduct, and Lilgert testified that he thought he had made the necessary course correction, a bit later than when he passed Sainty Point because he was maneuvering to avoid another craft. However, navigational equipment salvaged from the wreck did not support that testimony.
As well as firing Lilgert and Briker, B.C. Ferries fired the Queen’s captain, Colin Henthorne. Although a series of court actions first reversed his firing and, on appeal, reconfirmed it, Henthorne, who has gone on to serve with the Canadian Coast Guard, believes he and other crew members were treated unfairly by their employer. This book is his apologia and presents his thoughts about what actually happened that night, including his opinion that he was fired as punishment for his outspoken criticism of his employer’s failure to properly equip and organize work on the Queen of the North.
Henthorne dismisses lurid claims about sex on the bridge as unfounded and, in his view, unlikely. It seems to him altogether possible, however (especially given a new and confusing set of instruments and controls that had recently been installed on the bridge) that Lilgert had taken every step but one in a complex series necessary to change course, then became distracted by rough sea, winds and the other craft he was trying to avoid, and did not take the final, implementation step. In the captain’s account, there was human error involved, but not criminal negligence.
The Queen of the North Disaster is a tightly reasoned and informative account from an eyewitness to a set of events that still remains surrounded by unanswered questions. Henthorne set out to make the strongest case possible that he and his crew were hung out to dry by a BC Ferries management team unwilling to examine its role in the disaster.
Readers will have to decide for themselves if they are convinced, but this book provides the resources to support an informed judgment about one of our province’s most serious maritime disasters. This book is recommended reading for anyone who cares about maritime safety, B.C. history or workers’ rights.
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Source: National Post