Even before the Queen of the North passenger ferry was sitting at the bottom of the ocean off British Columbia’s northern coast, the officer navigating the ship already had an explanation for why the ship sailed into an island: there was a fishing boat in the way, he told his fellow crew members, and he was attempting to steer around it.
But the unidentified fishing boat has become the subject of conflicting and at-times confusing evidence at Karl Lilgert’s criminal negligence trial, with witnesses disagreeing about whether there even was such a boat and, if there was, how close it might have been to the ferry.
Third officer Janice O’Neill is the latest witness to add to the confusion, testifying Monday that when she arrived on the bridge shortly after the grounding, she didn’t see any other vessels nearby on the ship’s radar screen.
However, as recently as four months ago, Ms. O’Neill told Crown prosecutors that she did, in fact, see a boat moving along the radar screen. It’s a claim she also told police in the fall of 2006, about eight months after the sinking.
A frustrated Ms. O’Neill was at a loss to explain the differences between her testimony and her earlier statements to police and prosecutors.
“I think my memory had been influenced by interactions I had with other crew members from the Queen of the North,” Ms. O’Neill said while under cross-examination in B.C. Supreme Court.
Mr. Lilgert was the navigating officer when the ferry missed a scheduled course change shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, and sailed into an island. The ship sank and two passengers have been missing since.
The trial has heard Mr. Lilgert told crew members immediately after the collision that he had been attempting to steer clear of a fishing boat in poor weather.
Ms. O’Neill rushed to the bridge as soon as she felt the ship collide with the island, assuming her emergency duties as radio operator.
She testified it was dark when she arrived at the bridge, but she said she could see what appeared to be the lights of an anchored boat in an area named Home Bay, located east of Gil Island across Wright Sound.
Ms. O’Neill said she glanced at the radar screen, but she repeatedly insisted she didn’t see any other boats on the radar or outside through the windows.
One of Mr. Lilgert’s defence lawyers then read a transcript of a November, 2006, police interview in which Ms. O’Neill described watching a boat move along her radar screen. She said she thought the boat was a fishing vessel named Lone Star, which eventually aided in the rescue.
Ms. O’Neill told the same thing to prosecutors in two meetings in the fall of 2012, court heard, even drawing a mark on a map where she thought the moving fishing boat was located.
But once on the stand, Ms. O’Neill disavowed any recollection of seeing a fishing boat that night.
“I went through a fair-sized trauma,” she said. “I have no idea why I would introduce a fishing vessel there when initially I did not see a fishing vessel, and I apologize for the confusion.”
Whatever light Ms. O’Neill saw in the distance, it likely wasn’t the Lone Star. The trial has already heard the Lone Star was behind an island seeking shelter from deteriorating weather. The Lone Star heard the emergency radio dispatches from the Queen of the North and rushed to the scene to help.
Mr. Lilgert’s claims that a fishing boat forced him off course has become a recurring focus of the trial.
The only other person on the bridge at the time, quartermaster Karen Briker, testified Mr. Lilgert did not raise any concerns about a fishing boat, nor did she see any lights outside.
Second Officer Keven Hilton, who was on the bridge until about half an hour before the ship struck the island, testified he noticed a fishing vessel on the radar and pointed it out to Mr. Lilgert.
Mr. Hilton testified the fishing boat was moving in the same direction as the Queen of the North, only slower, but he also said the boat was far enough away that he didn’t believe it was of any concern.
Other witnesses have told the trial they saw lights, possibly of a distant boat, while others have recalled a pitch-black night with no lights or boats in sight.
The collision with Gil Island prompted a nighttime evacuation at sea, but two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, have been missing since the sinking and are presumed drown.
The Crown alleges Mr. Lilgert’s negligence led to the couple’s deaths. They say Mr. Lilgert failed in his duties when the ferry missed a scheduled course alteration and sailed toward an island.
The defence has suggested poor training, unreliable equipment and inadequate staffing policies contributed to the crash. They have also focused on Mr. Lilgert’s claims that he was steering around a fishing vessel.
Mr. Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.