VANCOUVER – The crew member who was navigating the Queen of the North passenger ferry when it sank, leaving two passengers missing, appeared distraught and possibly suicidal in the hours after the disaster, the captain of the ship testified Thursday.
Karl Lilgert was on the bridge when the ferry struck Gil Island on March 22, 2006.
A B.C. Supreme Court jury is hearing accusations against Lilgert of criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers who disappeared and were presumed drowned.
Colin Henthorne, who was asleep in his cabin when the ship struck Gil Island, testified about the evacuation and what happened after the crew and passengers left the ship in a flotilla of life rafts and life boats. Roughly two-thirds were taken to the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay, while the rest, including himself, Lilgert and several senior officers, were transported to the coast guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
It was on the Sir Wilfrid Laurier that Henthorne grew concerned about Lilgert, who until then had been an essential part of the evacuation, said Henthorne.
“You thought he was suicidal or might do some damage to himself?” asked Glen Orris, Lilgert’s lawyer.
“Yes,” replied Henthorne.
Henthorne later told police he became so concerned about Lilgert’s mental state that he asked another crew member to keep an eye on him.
“He was looking really distressed, terribly distressed — I was worried about him,” Henthorne said in a statement to police investigators, a transcript of which was read in court.
“When we first got to the ship and we were waiting to see where we were going, he was standing by the door looking deathly ill, and one of my crew said to me, ‘Should I look out for Karl?’”
Henthorne told police the chief officer of the coast guard ship expressed a similar concern, and they initially considered having Lilgert transported to hospital immediately. Instead, Lilgert was eventually transported to Hartley Bay, where he was picked up by a helicopter and flown to Prince Rupert with several other crew members and passengers.
The trial has heard Lilgert was on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Bricker, his former lover, when the ferry missed a critical turn as it sailed down B.C.’s Inside Passage. It was their first time working alone together since their affair ended.
The trial has already heard from another crew member, electrical engineer Bruce Boughey, who found himself on a life raft with Bricker. Boughey told the court Bricker was curled up in the “fetal position” and was unresponsive.
Bricker is expected to testify in the coming weeks.
The Crown claims Lilgert failed in his responsibilities to keep the ship and its passengers safe when he missed the turn and sailed the ship into an island.
The defence has said the crash was instead caused by a combination of poor training, shoddy BC Ferries policies and unreliable equipment.
Henthorne also testified about his own career at BC Ferries, which ended with his dismissal less than a year after the sinking. He said he believed he was fired because he raised safety concerns about the company’s operations.
Henthorne said his work troubles began after he appeared before an internal investigation several weeks after the sinking and was questioned by a panel largely made up of BC Ferries executives.
Henthorne said he was asked whether he had ever identified any safety issues to his superiors, and he replied there was a long list of safety concerns that he had reported but they were not fixed.
“They became irate over that and I believe that’s why they fired me,” recalled Henthorne, who now works as a rescue co-ordinator for the coast guard.
He was asked to detail those concerns in writing before returning to the panel for a second appearance, he said.
“There was some expressions of disbelief — they suggested my way of presenting them must have been ineffective in order for them not to be dealt with,” said Henthorne.
“Then they pledged they would correct all of them and deal with them. But the mood at that meeting was much more hostile than the previous one.”
Soon after, he was placed on paid leave, and in January 2007, he was formally dismissed.
At first, Henthorne said he and his lawyer were told his dismissal was for “operational requirements.”
When they pointed out the company was actively recruiting new captains at the time, BC Ferries offered a different explanation.
“Eventually, they claimed that they had lost confidence in me,” Henthorne said.
There were 101 passengers and crew on the ship that night, but two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and were presumed drowned.
Lilgert pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
His trial is expected to last up to six months.