As the hull of the Queen of the North passenger ferry came into contact with an isolated island off British Columbia’s north coast, engineer Roger Tew heard the hollow, almost musical ring of something hard slamming against metal.
The ship tilted from side to side before another, more devastating sound filled the ship’s engine room: the loud crunch of rock ripping into steel.
“There was a ring on the hull like hitting a gong,” Tew said Tuesday at the criminal negligence trial of the ship’s navigating officer.
“It (the ferry) rolled back before it came upright. It landed on the bottom and started to buck and jump quite violently. ... I figure we were grinding along the bottom for about nine seconds, and I could feel every frame being cut on that ship.”
Tew was the second engineer on the Queen of the North when it struck Gil Island and sank in the early hours of March 22, 2006.
On the bridge several floors up was Karl Lilgert, the ship’s fourth officer who is now on trial for criminal negligence causing the deaths of passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette.
Tew, an experienced marine engineer who has since retired from BC Ferries, said sea water filled nearby compartments almost immediately after the collision and it quickly reached the engine room.
Within 90 seconds, he and another crew member were standing in roughly a metre of water, attempting to shut a pair of watertight doors on opposite sides of the engine room, he said.
The room was about the same size as the large courtroom he was testifying in on Tuesday, Tew said.
The pair managed to close one of the doors, but the water prevented them from reaching the other, which had been blocked by a refrigerator, he told the court.
With water pouring in and no way to stop it, Tew and the other crew member headed for the upper decks.
“On the way up the stairs, the ship now had a pretty good list,” he said, “so we’re walking up the stairs at an angle.”
Tew left his engineering duties below deck and was now assisting with the rescue, helping other crew muster passengers and prepare life rafts.
The ship’s list was increasing – Tew said it was about 20 degrees by the time he was outside – meaning the crew could only use the life rafts and boats on the opposite side of the ferry. The list also made it difficult to lower the rafts into the water, he said.
Eventually, Tew said he found himself on a life raft with several other crew members and a fisherman who happened to be on the ferry and volunteered to assist in the evacuation. A powered inflatable boat – known as the shepherd boat – was towing them to the other life rafts, which were all linked together.
He looked back at the Queen of the North as it continued to slip into the water.
When deck five hit the surface, the ferry’s lights went out as the ship’s generators failed, he said. The emergency lights went dark when deck seven – where the bridge is located – went under.
“As the ship stood right up, there was a flood light on it from one of the fishing boats – that flood light just lit the deck as it started to sink and accelerated and it was quite spectacular,” said Tew.
“As the water pressure came up, all the windows blew out and in the light it looked like tinsel.”
With the ship now gone, Tew and the others in his life raft boarded a fishing vessel for a cold, 20-minute ride to the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay, where they were met with blankets, clothes and food.
The trial has already heard Lilgert was on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Bricker, his former lover, when the ship missed a critical course alteration and sailed toward Gil Island. It was their first time working alone together since their affair ended.
Bricker’s role would have been to physically steer the ship or, if the ferry was on autopilot, to keep a lookout from the bridge.
Another crew member who testified on Tuesday, electrical engineer Bruce Boughey, left the ship in a life raft with Bricker.
Boughey said Bricker appeared distraught.
“Karen was in kind of a fetal position; she was not really responding too much,” said Boughey.
“At that time, I didn’t know she was on the bridge.”
Bricker is expected to testify later in the trial.
Lilgert pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death. His trial, before a jury, is expected to last up to six months.
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