The rumours began almost immediately after the Queen of the North passenger ferry went down south of Prince Rupert in the early hours of March 22, 2006.
The two crew members on the bridge when the vessel plowed into Gil Island were former lovers who had just ended an intense relationship, and speculation persisted that had something to do with the ship's tragic sinking, at the cost of two lives.
Telling her story in public for the first time, however, quartermaster Karen Briker insisted nothing untoward occurred between her and fourth officer Karl Lilgert in the time leading up to the accident.
There were no distractions, no argument about their relationship, no physical contact, she told Mr. Lilgert's trial in B.C. Supreme Court on two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
Asked by defence lawyer Glen Orris whether Mr. Lilgert's behaviour had been professional while carrying out his duties in a normal fashion, Ms. Briker, 47, replied: "Yes."
With Ms. Briker at the helm and Mr. Lilgert in charge, responsible for directing the ship's course, the two were working alone together for the first time since she severed their six-month relationship, which she termed sexual rather than romantic, in early March.
Both had other partners during their affair, and Ms. Briker decided she wanted to stay with her common-law spouse, she explained. "[Karl] seemed fine with it. It didn't seem either of us had hard feelings. We were going home to our spouses."
Earlier during her dramatic testimony on Monday, she did refer to a short, personal conversation she had on the bridge with Mr. Lilgert. Before the ship sailed, the officer had learned that Ms. Briker was buying a house with her partner. "He made a comment that he didn't know I was buying a house," she said. "I said that I just bought it … and that was about it."
Ms. Briker, a veteran of more than 20 years with BC Ferries, shed little light on why the ferry failed to make a crucial course adjustment, causing it to collide with Gil Island.
Indeed, as she sat in a life raft, watching the Queen of the North slip beneath the waves, she was a wreck herself, believing she might have caused the mishap that doomed the ship.
She said Mr. Lilgert had ordered her to turn off the vessel's auto-pilot shortly before it hit the island, but she didn't know how.
"I was emotional in there," Ms. Briker recounted, referring to her time in the life raft. "I felt that because I didn't know how to turn off auto-pilot that I might have caused the accident."
Later, after being transferred to a covered lifeboat, she noticed Mr. Lilgert sitting in front of her, equally distraught. She asked him to please tell her that she wasn't responsible for the ship's sinking. "He replied that it wasn't my fault."
After they were brought to shore, she testified, Mr. Lilgert wept that his career was over. "He was emotional. At one point, he was in a fetal position, crying," she said.
Ms. Briker said she had no inkling of trouble until she saw the treetops of Gil Island illuminated by the ferry's lights. At about the same moment, she heard Mr. Lilgert exclaim, "Oh no!" or "Oh, my God," she told the court.
That's when Mr. Lilgert ordered her to turn off the auto-pilot, which had been guiding the ship, Ms. Briker said. "I told him I didn't know how, and he made the switch. … Then, he put the wheel into a hard-about position."
But it was too late. After alerting the captain, Ms. Briker said she returned to the bridge to find second officer Kevin Hilton arriving.
"He yelled, 'What the hell happened?' I heard Karl say: 'I'm sorry, sorry. I was trying to go around a fishing boat and we hit a squall and the [radar screen] whited out.' "
From the life raft, Ms. Briker saw the large ship sink. "I saw the bow go up and the stern go down. … There was noise. It was like metal twisting."
Only once did Ms. Briker lose her composure in the witness box, when crown lawyer Michel Huot asked her if the accident had had a big impact on her life.
"Yes," she whispered in reply, removing her glasses and brushing away tears.