More than seven years after the Queen of the North ferry crashed into a rocky island and sank, costing two passengers their lives, the officer in charge of navigating the ship has been found guilty of two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
Karl Lilgert gulped slightly but otherwise displayed no emotion as his verdict was pronounced by an 11-person jury that had deliberated for six days on whether Mr. Lilgert’s failure to make a routine course change amounted to criminal behaviour.
As he left B.C. Supreme Court shortly after the verdict late Monday afternoon, his mouth set in a grim line, the veteran 59-year-old mariner refused to comment, as did his lawyer, Glen Orris. “I’ve got nothing to say,” Mr. Orris told reporters.
The charges against Mr. Lilgert arose from the disappearance of ferry passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who have not been seen since the large vessel went down in the early morning of March 22, 2006.
In addition to the tragedy itself, the circumstances of the sinking sparked widespread, high-profile speculation, since the only two people on the bridge were Mr. Lilgert and his former lover, Karen Briker, working alone together for the first time since their intense, extramarital affair ended six weeks earlier.
The jury’s decision indicated acceptance of the Crown’s theory that something took place between Mr. Lilgert and Ms. Briker, the quartermaster, that distracted Mr. Lilgert during the 14 minutes the Queen of the North headed toward Gil Island in coastal waters south of Prince Rupert. The ship was travelling at normal cruising speed when it ran directly into the island.
The Crown speculated that Mr. Lilgert did not make the required course correction because he was engaged in “personal business” on the bridge with Ms. Briker, which might have been sexual activity or a heated discussion.
Mr. Lilgert denied the assertion.
During four gruelling days of testimony, he stuck to his story that he had been navigating the ship to the best of his ability, concentrating on avoiding other marine traffic in the area and coping with a sudden squall that pushed the large vessel slightly off course.
Mr. Lilgert claimed he made two alterations to the route as the Queen of the North approached Gil Island. However, he could not explain why the ferry hit the island when he had testified that he thought it was at least half a kilometre off shore.
The vessel’s electronic charting system, recovered from the stricken ship far beneath the surface, showed it travelled in a straight line to Gil Island.
Statements given to Transportation Safety Board investigators by Mr. Lilgert and Ms. Briker were not presented during the trial, since neither waived their right to confidentiality.
The TSB’s inquiry into the sinking found the two were involved in a conversation of “a personal nature” as the Queen of the North sailed toward the island.
On the witness stand, both denied such a discussion took place, claiming their interactions were routine, dealing only with navigation matters.
The collision and sinking of the Queen of the North was the first such calamity in the history of publicly owned BC Ferries.
Among the heroes that night were members of the Hartley Bay native band, who put to sea in fishing boats to help rescue passengers and crew. By morning, 63 individuals had been plucked from lifeboats and transferred to shore in Hartley Bay, where they recovered in the local community centre. Another 36, all crew members, remained on board the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a nearby coast guard ship.
For a time, it was believed all got off safely. Mr. Lilgert described his immense relief, while sitting in a lifeboat, when told, erroneously, that everyone was rescued.
Mr. Lilgert remains free on bail until his sentencing, set to begin June 21. The maximum penalty for criminal negligence causing death is life imprisonment, although that is rarely applied.
The jury was pared to 11 during its deliberation because of one juror’s pending wedding.