POLITICS

Passenger who was on deck when ferry crashed recalls calm weather

03/07/2013 04:47 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Kirby Jackson was about to light a cigarette while on an outside deck of the Queen of the North passenger ferry when he heard the unmistakable sound of waves lapping against a shore.

Jackson, who at the time was a fish farm worker, spent much of his life working on the water and he knew it was an unusual thing to hear from where he was standing.

Before long, Jackson, the latest witness at crew member Karl Lilgert's criminal negligence trial, could see where that sound was coming from.

"I took a look around the side and all I saw was this island coming toward us," Jackson, 41, told a B.C. Supreme Court jury on Thursday.

"That's when we hit, and I looked down and saw the beach right there. You could feel the whole boat shaking — it was pretty scary."

The impact knocked Jackson around and he hit his shoulder on a nearby door, he said. He then went inside to summon a co-worker who had joined him on the ride.

Lilgert, the ship's fourth officer, is now charged with criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers who haven't been seen since the ferry sank on March 22, 2006. His defence has suggested poor weather was among the many factors beyond Lilgert's control that contributed to the sinking.

But Jackson said the weather was fine when he was outside at the moment the ship slammed into the island.

"It was dark and it was calm, no wind or anything. It wasn't raining."

Other witnesses have also described a calm night, with only light rain and light winds, but those details have mostly focused on the time after the ferry hit the island, either during the evacuation or as survivors were floating in life rafts in the water.

Crew members, including Karen Briker — Lilgert's former lover who was the only other person on the bridge when the ship struck the island — have testified about strong winds during the voyage. But it hasn't been clear whether those winds were blowing around the time of the impact or earlier in the evening.

On Thursday, one of Lilgert's lawyers, Kevin Westell, noted Jackson had only been outside briefly before the collision and hadn't been onto the deck for at least half an hour before that. Jackson agreed that he hadn't seen the weather in the longer time period leading up to the collision.

Westell also pointed out Jackson was in a covered area of the outside deck when the collision occurred.

Jackson was on the ferry travelling from his home in Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, where he was heading to work at a fish farm.

He was sharing a cabin with Frank Bolton, another fish farm worker. Jackson's cousin, Dion Jackson, was also on the ferry travelling to the same fish farm, but he had his own cabin.

Jackson said he and Bolton spent much of the evening watching movies and drinking a case of beer with another passenger they befriended during the sailing. By the time Jackson left for his final cigarette, Bolton was asleep.

When he ran back to his cabin, Jackson said it took several minutes to wake up Bolton, who suffered from hearing problems but was not wearing his hearing aid at the time.

"When I finally got him up, he didn't believe me when I told him the boat was sinking, because usually I would joke around on our trips to pass time by," recalled Jackson.

Jackson said Bolton looked out a window in the hallway, just outside their room, and saw the island.

Jackson then headed to the cabin his cousin had been assigned and knocked on the door. It turned out the cousin had been moved to another room on the ship earlier in the evening, but Jackson hadn't been told.

"I was banging on the wrong door for a long time," he said.

"And then a couple of people told me he was probably at the muster station."

Jackson was later reunited with his cousin in Hartley Bay, the small First Nations community where many of the survivors were taken.

Jackson, his cousin and their fish farm co-worker were among the 99 passengers and crew members who survived the sinking.

Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and presumed drowned.

The Crown alleges Lilgert, who was the officer in charge of navigating the ship at the time, was negligent when the Queen of the North missed a scheduled turn and then sailed into the island.

Aside from the weather, the defence has also pointed to poor training, unreliable equipment and inadequate staffing policies on the ship as factors in the crash.

Lilgert pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.