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.
But the mystery remains about exactly what happened in the crucial 14 minutes after the ship should have changed course and before it hit the island.
Lawyer David Varty, representing most of the 53 surviving passengers in a class-action suit against B.C. Ferries, said his clients still expect answers that are not contained in yesterday's report.
"Private conversations, by themselves, don't prevent the crew on an aircraft from giving you a safe flight; they don't prevent crew in most transportation vessels from trains and ships from conducting a safe voyage," he said. "There's something more that we need to know about those conversations."
B.C. Ferries already has largely implemented most of the report's recommendations, the company noted yesterday, and 17 of its vessels now carry the data recorders.
Karl Lilgert, 4th Officer on the ill-fated Queen of the North and a central figure in the ship's sinking, issued his own statement yesterday with the release of the Transportation Safety Board report.
To everyone that was impacted by the sinking of the Queen of the North.
I regret this tragic accident occurred and its impact on all involved.
I continue to grieve for the missing persons and would with all my heart exchange my life for theirs.
I am sorry for the children of the missing persons and their families.
I am sorry for the passengers who survived, for their trauma and loss.
I am sorry for my shipmates for having to go through this tragic traumatic accident, who did everything they could.
I am sorry for all involved that still to this day are having difficulty because of this traumatic accident.
I am sorry to BC Ferry and Marine Workers' Union for the grief and financial strain this disaster has created. I feel humble and indebted for the unconditional support I have received from them.
I am sorry for BC Ferries for having to deal with this tragedy.
I am sorry for my family and friends that were impacted by this tragic accident. I am grateful for your understanding and support.
I am thankful for the community of Hartley Bay who opened their community and assisted the rescue.
Words are inadequate for the sorrow and grief I feel. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about everyone that was impacted by this tragic accident. For all of this I am deeply sorry.
March 21, 8 p.m. Queen of the North departs Prince Rupert southbound for Port Hardy on Vancouver Island carrying 101 passengers and crew.
12:02 a.m. Fourth Officer Karl Lilgert reports the ferry is approaching Sainty Point to ship traffic controllers in Prince Rupert. At Sainty Point, the ship was supposed to make a course correction. Mr. Lilgert resumes a "personal conversation" with Quartermaster Karen Bricker.
12:07 a.m. Queen of the North sails past Sainty Point and into Wright Sound. No course correction has been made.
12:20 a.m. The vessel is now 13 minutes past the course correction point. Mr. Lilgert orders a 109-degree course change. Ms. Bricker questions it but when she stands to make the change, she looks up and sees trees. Mr. Lilgert orders her to switch from autopilot to hand steering, but Ms. Bricker says she doesn't know how.
12:21 a.m. Queen of the North strikes Gil Island. Water quickly pours into the hull. Evacuation of passenger and crew begins.
12:26 a.m. Queen of the North advises Prince Rupert Traffic that the vessel is aground and immediate help is needed.
12:27 a.m. Mayday call is made.
1:40 a.m. Queen of the North slips under water.
March 26-28 B.C. Ferries contracts manned submersible, which locates the wreck resting upright on its keel in 425 metres of water.
June 19-25 TSB conducts remote dive on the wreck, successfully recovering electronic chart system.
March 26 B.C. Ferries releases findings of its own investigation, concluding "human errors were primary cause of the sinking."
April 23 B.C. Ferries provides TSB with copies of statutory declarations from two B.C. Ferries employees indicating the quartermaster had been overheard saying she was alone on the bridge. The TSB reinterviews key witnesses.
April 24 B.C. Ferries sends formal termination letters to three bridge crew.
Oct. 17 TSB issues safety concern notice regarding use of marijuana by crew on Queen of the North.
Feb. 6 B.C. Ferries initiates drug and alcohol policy, including mandatory drug and alcohol testing as part of an investigation into a major incident.
March 12 Final TSB report is released.
The Canadian Press
Some B.C. Ferries accidents
Jan. 9, 2007 MV Quinsam loading traffic from Nanaimo to Gabriola Island unexpectedly pulls away from its berth, sending a pickup truck into the water. Ferry workers warn the truck's lone occupant in time for him to escape.
March 22, 2006 Queen of the North, en route from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, fails to make crucial course change and strikes Gil Island, sinking an hour later. Two passengers go down with the ship and 99 passengers and crew escape.
June 30, 2005 Queen of Oak Bay loses power as it enters the Horseshoe Bay terminal at West Vancouver, slams into nearby marina and crushes 22 boats. No one is hurt in the accident which is blamed on a missing cotter pin.
May 12, 2003 Queen of Surrey was disabled by an engine room fire, with several crew members suffering minor injuries but none of the 318 passengers are hurt.
Sept. 14, 2000 Spirit of Vancouver Island hits 10-metre power boat outside Swartz Bay ferry terminal near Victoria, killing two aboard the boat.
November 7, 1995 Mayne Queen crashes into a private marina on Bowen Island, damaging several moored boats. Blame is placed on mechanical or human error in transferring control between two consoles as the ferry left the dock.
August 13, 1992 Two people are killed at Departure Bay terminal in Nanaimo, B.C., when the Queen of New Westminster leaves the ferry terminal as a van still driving across a ramp to the upper deck plunges 15 metres into the water.
March 12, 1992 B.C. Ferries vessel en route to Nanaimo slams into Japanese coal freighter Shinwa Maru after leaving Tsawwassen ferry terminal south of Vancouver. Seventeen ferry passengers are injured.
The Canadian Press