Water. Ship. Down.
It's been ten years since Queen of the North, carrying 101 passengers and crew, sank near Gil Island, between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert.
October 25th, 2016
And, for ten years, questions have swirled around this tragedy.
by Beverly Cramp
Two passengers went missing, were never found and are presumed dead.
The vessel was on a well-known course; it was a voyage successfully undertaken thousands of times, so how could this possibly have occurred? One theory quickly floated to the top of public conversations around the water cooler. It was widely surmised that a male crewmember and a female crewmember–who had previously been involved romantically–had been distracted by canoodling, or possibly a feud.
A first-hand account of what happened the night of March 22, 2006, The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story (Harbour $24.95), by the ex-captain of the Queen of the North, Colin Henthorne, is one man’s effort to dredge up the truth about the plight of the ferry that still lies on the sea bed. His carefully worded, in-depth account thoroughly debunks those salacious rumours about sex or incompatibility on the bridge.
“I would guess that anyone who has heard of the sinking has heard that rumour,” he writes. “Maclean’s magazine called it ‘perhaps the best-known rumour in B.C.’ A dismaying number of people believe it to this day.”
Helmswoman Karen Briker and fourth mate Karl Lilgert, who were alone on the bridge, have denied the rumour, testifying under oath. Henthorne adds credence to their testimony while noting it was only normal for two people on the bridge to engage in sporadic conversation. “It would be very strange if they hadn’t,” he writes. “If crew members working long shifts on a bridge don’t speak to each other, it indicates something amiss with the working relationship. Briker testified that she had been showing some fellow crew members ‘paint swatches she was considering for the walls of a home she had recently purchased. Hours later, when Briker and Lilgert found themselves alone together on the bridge, Briker said the subject of the house came up again.’
“Lilgert reportedly said, ‘I didn’t know you were buying a house.’ This was played up by the Crown as evidence of hot passion, although it could just as easily be seen as evidence the pair was no longer close. Their own evidence was that they had had a brief affair in the past, but that it had been casual and was over. It may not have come up but for an unknown informant who passed the rumour to the RCMP.”
Prosecutors in Lilgert’s case and the press seized upon the ‘sex on the bridge’ rumour says Henthorne.
Henthorne writes:“Michel Huot, one of the ten prosecutors at Lilgert’s trial, emphasized it. Huot accused Lilgert of relieving the second mate, Kevin Hilton, early so he could be alone with Briker on the bridge. ‘The relationship the two of you shared,’ Huot said, ‘the attraction was powerful enough that whether it was sexual activity or an argument or a discussion coming out of the breakup of the relationship, that’s what occupied your attention that night, not navigating the vessel.’ The fact that the prosecution couldn’t decide whether to accuse the pair of making love or making war shows just how little evidence they had to suggest anything untoward had taken place between them at all.”
Henthorne despairingly adds: “Nobody seemed to give serious consideration to the fact that the bridge of a moving ship is subject to constant, unannounced intrusion, making it one of the most unsuitable venues imaginable for any kind of intimate behaviour, or that it would be bizarrely out of character for a veteran seaman entrusted with the conduct of a BC Ferries flagship to risk his career, his ship, and the lives of all on board, including his own, for a moment of foolish indulgence. Certainly those who knew Lilgert as a responsible shipmate who took great pride in his professionalism find it unthinkable.”
As for how the ferry could have run aground after thousands of previous sailings on that route, Henthorne writes: “This attitude is perhaps understandable in non-mariners. Experienced mariners know that vessels on scheduled runs do not have the luxury of choosing when they sail; they have to be out there every day except in the most extreme conditions, and they are out there so much that they are more likely than other vessels to be involved in freak occurrences – perfect storms of weather, traffic, equipment failure, or poor judgment that the more occasional seaman might never face. In this sense, highly repetitive navigation carries with it a special risk: if anything can go wrong, sooner or later it will.”
The possibility of equipment failure was dismissed early. Henthorne begs to differ: “The Queen of the North,” he writes, “had a documented record of equipment failure, including total steering failures that could never be explained (one occurred in August 2005; incident reports were filed), as well as failures of the autopilot that were also never explained.”
Henthorne has tactfully suggested: “By the time Lilgert came to trial, the declarations of various expert witnesses, pundits, and armchair sailors had been so widely publicized that it seemed to be almost universally accepted that the accident was caused by negligence. People who had not been there had made categorical statements about the state of the weather, about the state of the equipment, about the ship hanging up at Gil Rock (it didn’t), and about the precise damage that had been done to the ship (as if they had swum down 1,400 feet/427 metres, cleared away the silt that buried the hull, and examined it).”
And thus, Henthorne avers, the assumption of negligence hung over the incident. “Every formal hearing, from BC Ferries’ own Divisional Inquiry to the Workers Compensation Board Appeal Tribunal to the Supreme Court, felt justified in making assumptions about Lilgert’s being ‘distracted’ and ‘not doing his job.’ In this way the rumour may have been as effective a prosecution weapon as any smoking gun.”
Henthorne provides extensive coverage of Lilgert’s own testimony about what happened. It reads like a cascade of ill-fated events involving course alterations to avoid Gil Island and a tugboat towing a log boom as well as another vessel in the area; a sudden storm; strong winds sucking the ferry off-course; and “issues” with navigational equipment.
The ferry actually struck an underwater ledge a short distance off Gil Island, the island that Lilgert was attempting to navigate away from.
“When told by the court the electronic data didn’t show course alterations,” Henthorne writes, “Lilgert said he did not understand why. Briker had testified earlier, and Canadian Press reported: The ship was on autopilot, and at some point, Lilgert ordered Briker to enter a large course correction into the system… Before she could make the change, Briker saw trees through a window that were illuminated by the ferry’s lights. ‘I then remember hearing him say something like, ‘Oh my God,’ or, ‘Oh no,’ said Briker. ‘He then ordered me to turn off the autopilot and I told him that I didn’t know how.’… Briker was a casual employee, and she had said she hadn’t worked on the bridge of that ship for nearly a year… Shortly after, Briker said she overheard Lilgert speaking with another officer. ‘I heard him say, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I was trying to go around a fishing boat. We hit a squall and the radar screen had whited out.”
The mention of another boat was given short shrift by the media, writes Henthorne, and the narrative returned to the love distraction story. “Even Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein in her sentencing decision said she thought Lilgert’s relationship with quartermaster Karen Briker was a significant factor in the crash,” he writes. The court record cites Stromberg-Stein concluding that she didn’t need to speculate on what Mr. Lilgert was doing on the bridge that night, “I know what he was not doing. He was not doing his job.”
This viewpoint, says Henthorne, provided the best outcome for BC Ferries. “To some extent,” he writes, “it deflected blame away from the company and onto replaceable employees. It gave the travelling public some reassurance that the problem had been dealt with.”
Briker was fired.
Lilgert, who soon felt it was in his best interest to move away from Prince Rupert where he had a house, was eventually charged with criminal negligence causing death and sentenced to four years in prison.
Captain Henthorne, who wasn’t on watch when the grounding occurred, fought to keep his job and lost. He found himself jobless with his reputation severely tarnished.
Again the public engaged in relatively uninformed conjecture. Without knowing much of the details, some people assumed Henthorne was the fall guy for BC Ferries.
In The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story Henthorne has posited a far less spicy reason for the accident. “Another way of looking at the incident, and one it is safe to say BC Ferries would not favour,” he writes, “was that ‘given the state of the company’s safety practices and protocols, the fleet was an ‘accident waiting to happen’ and that ‘systemic problems that affected the whole fleet… might have been the cause, or one of the causes, of the sinking of the Queen of the North.’ This view was held by none other than BC Ferries’ own director of safety, health and environment, Captain Darin Bowland.”
It took Henthorne more than six years to recover his career after the firing. At first he couldn’t get a maritime job. He ended up looking for unskilled jobs until Captain Elgin McKillop hired him to run an inland ferry between Galena Bay and Shelter Bay on Upper Arrow Lake. He was hired as a first mate, but not full-time, and also took work as a deckhand. At age 56, thirty-five years after his first command, he swept decks and cleaned toilets. Now he works as a Canadian Coast Guard Rescue Co-ordinator at the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria.
Colin Henthorne was born in Vancouver and spent nearly all his life living and working on the water. At the age of 21 he became commander of his first vessel and continued to command ships most of his life. He sailed as master with BC Ferries from 1990 and was fifty-two when the Queen of the North sank.