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The stern of the sunken ferry Queen of the North is seen in this frame from handout video footage.

The stern of the sunken ferry Queen of the North is seen in this frame from handout video footage.

Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Much of what happened the night of the ferry's sinking – and to its two missing passengers – is still unknown , writes James Keller

After the Queen of the North passenger ferry struck an island and sank off the B.C. coast a decade ago, the ship's crew counted the survivors to confirm all 101 people aboard had made it off safely. When they came up short, they counted again.

The task began in life rafts, which floated together in the darkness as the ferry sank to the bottom of the ocean and the survivors waited for fishing boats and rescue crews to carry them to shore. It continued in the nearby First Nations village of Hartley Bay, whose residents aided in the rescue.

Colin Henthorne, the ship's captain, was sure the evacuation had been a success, that the crew had searched the ship according to plan and no one had been missed. So when they finally settled on a count of 99 passengers and crew, he couldn't believe it.

Colin Henthorne, captain of the Queen of the North passenger ferry and author of The Queen of the North Disaster.

"I was always expecting them to show up. I was always thinking of explanations of where they might have gone; maybe they met someone they knew and were just hanging out. I just figured it was something like that," Mr. Henthorne, now 62, recalled in an interview this week to discuss the launch of his book about that night. "I've gone through in my mind many times of how they could have been missed, and keep finding the same reasons why they should have made it."

The missing passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were presumed drowned and a year later declared dead, but even today – after an exhaustive series of investigations, lawsuits and a lengthy criminal trial – nobody knows exactly what happened to them.

Their fate is one of the many mysteries that remain – mysteries that Mr. Henthorne details in a new book, The Queen of the North Disaster, which recounts the sinking from his perspective and the impact it has had on his life, while questioning many aspects of the official explanation for the catastrophe.

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The Queen of the North sank in the early morning of March 22, 2006, after slamming into a remote island during an overnight journey from Prince Rupert, along the province's northern coast, to Vancouver Island.

The theory of investigators and prosecutors was that the ferry missed a scheduled turn because navigating officer Karl Lilgert was not paying attention as the ship sailed in a straight line toward the island.

Mr. Lilgert, who was eventually convicted and imprisoned for criminal negligence, was alone on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Briker, with whom he had had an affair, and the Crown suggested they were either having a lovers' quarrel or, as rumours had swirled for years, having sex.

Mr. Henthorne said he's not convinced a trained and experienced mariner such as Mr. Lilgert would become so distracted that he would completely abandon his duties – and said the rumours of sexual impropriety in a high-traffic area such as a ship's bridge are absurd.

"I thought that was just a mean-spirited accusation," Mr. Henthorne said. "I really find that particular rumour the most damaging of all. Not only do you damage the reputations of those two and try to ruin their lives more than they already were, it distracts from any kind of objectivity."

At Mr. Lilgert's trial, he and Ms. Briker testified that Mr. Lilgert was busy tracking the ferry's course through rough weather while steering clear of a nearby boat.

Mr. Henthorne concedes he does not know what happened and he said it's clear Mr. Lilgert failed to properly navigate the ship. But he said there were enough issues with the ship's equipment – the layout of the bridge, radar that could become unreliable in poor weather, a complicated autopilot system – along with deficiencies with training and safety planning, that there could be other explanations for the disaster.

"I don't think it was definitively proven, even in the court, what happened," he said.

An undated handout photo of the Queen of the North ferry.

An undated handout photo of the Queen of the North ferry.


Mr. Henthorne was eventually fired from BC Ferries, the former Crown corporation that operates the province's ferry system. He argues he was fired for raising safety concerns during the investigation and challenged the firing in court. The company insisted he was dismissed in part owing to his attitude during the internal BC Ferries investigation, and a court later rejected Mr. Henthorne's legal challenge.

The company has also said it has fixed many of the safety problems identified in the wake of the Queen of the North disaster.

In the years that followed, Mr. Henthorne struggled to find full-time work in line with his experience as the captain of a major vessel. He worked for a time on the Kootenay Lake ferry in southeastern B.C., and eventually took a job with the Canadian Coast Guard, co-ordinating the type of rescue operations that came to the aid of the Queen of the North.

And while he was successfully treated for post-traumatic stress, he still struggles to understand what happened to Mr. Foisy and Ms. Rosette, the two missing passengers.

"I still hold out hope for some reason," he said. "It's not much of a rational hope any more, but it's the way a lot of people react when they have that uncertainty when someone is missing."