POLITICS

Family members of two victims testify at B.C. ferry sinking trial

04/16/2013 03:30 EDT | Updated 06/16/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - When the Queen of the North passenger ferry sank off the coast of northern British Columbia seven years ago, Brittni Foisy expected her father, Gerald, who was travelling on the ship with his common-law wife, would waste no time picking up the phone to let her know he was safe.

After all, Gerald, who lived in 108 Mile House, would call his daughters in Penticton several times a week, making sure to always visit on special occasions such as birthdays and graduations, and sometimes for no reason at all. The last such visit was just a week earlier.

But the phone never rang, and before long it became clear Gerald and his spouse, Shirley Rosette, were missing.

"(Our relationship was) very close, warm, and he told both my sister and I on a number of occasions that we were his world and he would do anything for us," Brittni, 22, told a B.C. Supreme Court jury on Tuesday at a crew member's criminal negligence trial.

"I was shocked when I hadn't heard from him right after the accident. I knew something was wrong."

Gerald Foisy and Rosette haven't been seen since the Queen of the North struck an island and sank in the early hours of March 22, 2006. They were presumed drowned, and one of the ferry's crew members, navigating officer Karl Lilgert, is now on trial for criminal negligence causing their deaths.

Lilgert's trial began in January, but until now the proceedings have mostly focused on the first-hand accounts of survivors and on Lilgert's actions, not the lives of the two missing passengers.

Tuesday's testimony marks the first time either of the Foisy daughters have publicly spoken about their father or the disaster that left him missing as the Crown told the victims' stories while also attempting to prove beyond a doubt that the couple did, in fact, die that night.

Brittni held her composure during her brief testimony as Lilgert watched from a table beside one of his lawyers.

Court heard her parents separated when she was seven years old. Her father stayed in 108 Mile House, while she, her younger sister Morgan, and their mother moved to Penticton, B.C.

Several years later, Gerald met Rosette. By 2006, the couple were engaged and living together. In the weeks before the Queen of the North sinking, Gerald and Rosette had moved into an apartment in nearby 100 Mile House while they prepared to sell Gerald's house in 108 Mile House.

Despite the physical distance between them, Brittni and Morgan, who is now 19, remained close with their father, the court heard.

Gerald's final visit was a week before the sinking, when he travelled to Penticton with his brother and Rosette. They stayed in a local hotel, where Brittni and Morgan visited them and played in the pool. During their week-long visit, they shared meals, went for walks and went go-karting, said Brittni.

Brittni said she and her sister were also fond of Rosette and her two sons.

"She's my step-mom," said Brittni. "I call (Rosette's children) my step-brothers to this day."

When Rosette disappeared, her two sons, Brandon and Brent, were living in an apartment with their cousin in 100 Mile House. They were living on their own to avoid commuting from 108 Mile House for school, Brandon told the court Tuesday.

Brandon said he and his brother were very close to their mother, having last heard from her several days before the Queen of the North sank.

Four relatives testified Tuesday, and each was asked whether it was possible Gerald and Rosette might have survived the sinking without making any contact.

"If she was alive today, would she have called you and returned to you after the ferry sinking?" asked Crown lawyer Dianne Wiedemann.

"Most definitely," replied Brandon.

Gerald had worked for years as a metal fabricator at a company in 100 Mile House, the trial heard, while Rosette found temporary work as a receptionist at the Dog Creek Indian Band, where she was from.

Each had their own personal struggles in the years leading up to the sinking.

Gerald found it difficult to cope with his divorce, the court heard, and he dealt with depression and alcoholism. In March 2006, Gerald was on a six-week medical leave due to his depression, but relatives and his former boss also said he was making progress at turning his life around and was due to return to work by the end of that month.

Rosette's husband of 19 years died in a fishing accident in 2003.She found it difficult to move on and was depressed after her husband's death, the court heard. A year later, she met Gerald.

The trial has already heard both were on antidepressant medication, and there have been questions about whether those drugs could have caused drowsiness if mixed with alcohol. The trial has so far been unable to explain how Gerald and Rosette could have remained on the ship despite the collision and alarms during the evacuation.

Another passenger aboard the ferry testified earlier that he had dinner with the couple on the ferry and Gerald and Rosette both had wine with their food. Gerald's brother told the court on Tuesday that Gerald had two bottles of beer before boarding the ferry and brought several more on board with him.

The couple's family doctor previously testified the antidepressant drugs Gerald and Rosette were taking can make some patients drowsy, and "alcohol would compound that."

But Dr. Frankie Mah also said he was not aware Gerald had a drinking problem when he prescribed the drugs, though he knew Gerald had been convicted of impaired driving.

Tuesday's testimony marked the end of the Crown's case against Lilgert, whose trial has heard from dozens of witnesses including passengers, crew members and experts.

The jury has yet to hear whether the defence plans to call any witnesses. Lilgert's lawyers aren't obliged to call evidence, nor are they required to reveal their plans in advance.

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

— With files from Rebekah Funk