When the Queen of the North hit Gil Island, the officer in charge of navigating the large passenger vessel thought the doomed ship was half a kilometre off-shore.
“All I wanted was not to be there,” Karl Lilgert told a hushed courtroom, as he recounted his reaction to suddenly seeing trees out of the corner of his eye, while fiddling with the radar on the boat’s bridge. “I was so shocked. I was so certain I was three cables [0.5 km] off the coast. The trees were a reality I was not going to accept. But when I looked back, there they were.”
Mr. Lilgert’s admission Tuesday that he had no idea the Queen of the North was on course for the large, rocky island capped a dramatic day of testimony by the 59-year-old fourth officer, who broke down in tears several times, as he relived the early morning sinking of the Queen of the North seven years ago.
Facing two charges of criminal negligence causing death arising from the deaths of two passengers, Mr. Lilgert is providing his version of events for the first time.
As the Queen of the North headed south from Prince Rupert through the narrow Inland Passage, Mr. Lilgert said he asked for a course alteration to be made in the direction of Gil Island, to ensure the ship avoided a small fishing boat on the port side.
Although a squall was moving through at the same time, Mr. Lilgert told Crown prosecutor Michel Huot he was not concerned by his decision to change course. “I didn’t think the squall was going to interfere with the speed and direction I was going. I believed my position was fine.”
When Mr. Huot expressed skepticism about the wisdom of Mr. Lilgert’s decision, noting that the island was obscured on the radar screen by “clutter” from the squall, the accused replied: “I didn’t believe for a moment that we were going to be anywhere near Gil Island. I was travelling towards it, not at it. Even if everything went wrong, we would still be three cables away. … I had no idea those trees were going to show up.”
Normally, the southward ferry route requires a course alteration near the Sainty Point Light northeast of Gil Island to avoid coming close to the island.
But Mr. Lilgert said he delayed the change for three extra minutes because of concerns over a tow boat in the area. This took place before the second alteration that occurred just ahead of Gil Island.
Asked by Mr. Huot why he chose three minutes for the delay, Mr. Lilgert said: “It’s a nice number, a random number. It would be no danger to Gil Island.”
Mr. Huot also asked numerous questions about Mr. Lilgert’s relationship with quartermaster Karen Briker, who was under his command on the bridge when the ship hit the island and sank. It was the first time the two had been alone since an intense extramarital affair between them had ended.
Mr. Lilgert denied that either had any strong emotions over their past relationship, saying he couldn’t remember deliberately not talking to Ms. Briker when the two were in the crew canteen before heading up to the bridge on the fateful night. “She was just another deckhand, a good friend,” he told the B.C. Supreme Court trial.
Earlier, Mr. Lilgert described how, after he saw the trees, he frantically ordered Ms. Briker to switch off autopilot so he could manually steer the vessel away from Gil Island at the last moment. “She said, ‘I don’t know how,’ and my heart just sank.”
Finally, the switch was made, and Mr. Lilgert, with steering wheel in hand, tried to avoid the island. “I remember watching the rudder and watching the trees go by.” He broke down on the witness stand, weeping uncontrollably, prompting his lawyer Glen Orris to walk over and console him.
Mr. Lilgert wiped more tears away as he told of sitting in the lifeboat, hearing numerous head counts being made of passengers and crew. They seemed to indicate all had been accounted for. “I was quite relieved we had everyone,” he said in a low voice, then wept.
He cried for a third time, after admitting that, in hindsight, he could have used one of the ship’s steering mechanisms without auto-pilot being turned off. “There was so much more I could have done.”
Mr. Lilgert also told of the devastating personal toll he has suffered since the Queen of the North went down. He’s had to move from Prince Rupert, he’s been fired by BC Ferries, his marriage has ended, and he’s been shunned by many former friends and crewmates.
The trial continues on Wednesday.