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Ferry worker apologizes, two years later Add to ...

The man at the helm of the Queen of the North the night the ferry slammed into an island and sank said yesterday he is sorry - two years after the tragedy that killed two people.

Karl Lilgert offered his apology shortly after the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a report that said he was distracted by a conversation with his ex-girlfriend when the accident occurred.

"I continue to grieve for the missing persons and would with all my heart exchange my life for theirs," he said in his first public statement since the accident March 22, 2006.

The report said the ferry crashed because the two crew members on the bridge, engaged in a "conversation of a personal nature," failed to change course before the vessel hit Gil Island at full speed.

Lana Foisy, whose teenage daughters Brittni and Morgan lost their father in the accident, said yesterday that Mr. Lilgert's timing is terrible.

"It's been two years," she said. "We are looking for some accountability."

In the 76-page report, based on a two-year-long investigation, the TSB describes "various distractions" on the bridge in the minutes before the crash. Those included the conversation, reduced visibility because of a squall, and navigation systems that had been disabled.

"The working environment on the bridge of the Queen of the North was less than formal, and the accepted principles of navigation safety were not consistently or rigorously followed," said the report, presented by a board panel that included chair Wendy Tadros.

"Unsafe navigation practices persisted which, in this occurrence, contributed to the loss of situational awareness by the bridge team."

In remarks to a news conference at a Vancouver hotel, Ms. Tadros said that "essentially, the system failed that night." She called for better counts of passengers to help with evacuations in such cases, and more "realistic exercises" to prepare for such disasters.

But a third recommendation - for the federal Transportation Department to mandate the installation of voyage data recorders on all large Canadian vessels - spoke to an issue that dominated a briefing on the report.

That was the board's refusal to disclose the details of the conversation between Mr. Lilgert, the senior officer, and Karen Bricker, a quartermaster in training - the only two people on the bridge. The pair had ended a romantic relationship just two weeks before the accident.

Captain Pierre Murray, a senior marine investigator involved in the $900,000 probe, dismissed the relevance of their discussion, but said there would be no debate if a voyage data recorder had captured their conversation.

"It is not our mandate to report on small, deep, juicy details the media would like to [know]" He said investigators are well aware of the nature of the conversation and "details" of the relationship between the pair.

"However, for the safety investigation that we have been carrying out, that level of detail really becomes not as important as ... what was not going on the bridge that night, which is to follow sound watch-keeping practices."

Jackie Miller, president of the union representing the bridge crew, yesterday asked for public sympathy for the pair on the bridge, whom she described as "broken" by the events.

"It's tragic what happened to Karl Lilgert and Karen Bricker," said Jackie Miller, president of the BC. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union.

"Karen was a victim, she was not given the training needed and she was let down by B.C. Ferries. ... They did not recognize she was not qualified and should not have been put in that position."

The union has filed a grievance because B.C. Ferries fired three crew members over the incident: the pair on the bridge plus another officer who was on a meal break. Mr. Lilgert will face an arbitration hearing in May.

"We can't talk about the details, but in general you don't make a ferry system safer by firing some people," Ms. Miller said.

She applauded the board's conclusion that B.C. Ferries needs to improve its safety-management system, noting it is an issue that the union has raised for years.

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