BRITISH COLUMBIA

Karl Lilgert, Queen Of The North Officer, Explains How Ferry Crashed

04/22/2013 03:57 EDT | Updated 06/22/2013 05:12 EDT
CP
VANCOUVER - As the Queen of the North sailed into the darkness down British Columbia's Inside Passage seven years ago, the ship's navigating officer says there was nothing happening that caused him any concern.

Heavy rain was battering the ship's windows and Karl Lilgert told court he could hear gusts of wind whistling outside the doors of the bridge, but it wasn't anything he hadn't sailed through before.

Minutes earlier, he had delayed a scheduled turn to avoid a tug boat he knew was in the area, he testified at his criminal negligence trial Monday, but it was a routine manoeuvre. And he was confident a possible fishing boat in the distance would be out of his way in plenty of time, he said.

But everything wasn't fine. The ship was sailing straight toward a remote island — a catastrophic reality Lilgert didn't notice until he could see it outside the ferry's windows.

"I catch something out of the corner of my eye and there's trees," Lilgert told a B.C. Supreme Court jury, cursing as he recalled the thought that went through his mind at that moment.

"I look away because I don't believe it," he continued, choking up.

Lilgert was on the bridge as the ferry slammed into Gil Island in the early hours of March 22, 2006, sinking and leaving passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette missing and presumed drowned. He is now charged with criminal negligence causing their deaths.

Lilgert, wearing a black sweater, his face clean shaven and his collar-length hair combed back, took the stand in his own defence Monday, telling his version of events for the first time as his lawyers opened their case.

He downplayed the significance of an affair he had with the crew member he was on the bridge with just before the sinking, while also attempting to bolster his lawyers' claims that poor weather and unreliable equipment hampered his ability to do his job.

The trial has already heard the Queen of the North failed to make a scheduled turn as it left a narrow passage known as Grenville Channel and entered a large body of water named Wright Sound.

Lilgert said he didn't miss the turn, but rather delayed it. A marine traffic operator alerted him to a tug boat in the area, and he told the court he planned to delay the turn for several minutes to leave plenty of room for the tug.

He also had his eye on what appeared to be a small boat on his radar ahead of the ferry, he said, but he assumed the boat would be moving toward the opposite shore to avoid the deteriorating weather and wouldn't pose a problem.

Lilgert ordered quarter master Karen Briker, his former lover and the only other person on the bridge, to make at least two course adjustments, he said. Lilgert said he was monitoring the ferry's position on the ship's radar and electronic chart systems, ensuring to keep it three cables — more than half a kilometre — away from Gil Island on the ferry's right side.

"Was there anything that you noticed at this point that caused you any concern?" asked defence lawyer Glen Orris.

"No, not yet at all, everything was normal," replied Lilgert.

Lilgert said the radar showed a squall of wind and rain heading his way, but he also said the squall was moving quickly, which meant the weather would likely clear up before long.

As the squall approached, he said, it interfered with his radar, prompting him to adjust the controls to deal with the interference. It was then that he noticed the trees out the window.

Lilgert did not mention any interaction with Briker.

Briker testified earlier in the trial, telling the court she, too, believed everything was fine in the half-hour she spent on the bridge before the sinking. She said Lilgert ordered her to make two turns, and she saw the trees outside about the time of the second turn.

The trial has also seen data recorded by the ship's electronic chart system, which used GPS technology to track the ferry's course. The data depicted a course that essentially ran along a straight line from Grenville Channel until the ferry hit Gil Island, with no significant turns along the way.

Lilgert's affair with Briker has become a significant issue at the trial, and Lilgert was forced Monday to explain the intimate details of their relationship as one of his sons watched from the courtroom's public gallery.

Prosecutors have yet to explain just how the affair fits into their theory about what happened, but they have given the relationship considerable attention. Briker has already insisted the affair had nothing to do with the sinking of the ship.

Lilgert said he first met Briker several years earlier, when she worked at the terminal in Prince Rupert and he was a deckhand on BC Ferries' northern routes.

Eventually, Briker became a deckhand herself, and she, Lilgert and other crew members spent the previous summer between sailings riding bicycles and enjoying other activities such as whale watching, he said.

By September 2005, Lilgert and Briker's relationship grew into more than an innocent friendship.

"I don't know what the magic moment was — all of the sudden we were intimate," Lilgert said, speaking softly.

"We had decided that the relationship would be nothing more than intimacy, and that was the extent it. We weren't interested in perusing a lifelong relationship and we left it at that level."

At some point, Briker's spouse caught wind of the affair; Briker said that happened just before Christmas. The relationship slowed down, said Lilgert, but it didn't stop.

In early 2006, Briker's common-law husband contacted Lilgert's spouse, he said. He arrived home one night after a two-week shift aboard the other northern ship, the Queen of Prince Rupert.

"She (my spouse) asked me about Karen and my heart sank," said Lilgert.

"We talked, and I told her about Karen and what was happening. It was pretty difficult, but I agreed that if this relationship that I was in was going to work, I could not be having an affair."

Lilgert said he and Briker agreed in February 2006 to finally end the affair — a decision he described as mutual.

"There weren't any bad feelings at all," he said. "We got what we needed out of the relationship and both agreed that we were going to continue with our other partners. There wasn't any anger. There was understanding."

Briker told the jury in March that she and Lilgert said very little to each other in the half-hour they were alone together before the sinking.

The pair briefly talked about Briker's decision to buy a house with her common-law husband, said Briker, but that was it. She said they did not argue, nor was there any physical contact between them.

Lilgert and Briker differ on some aspects of their relationship, notably the timing of the break-up.

Briker said the affair ended at the beginning of March, while Lilgert said it was earlier, in mid-February. Briker also said it was her idea to end the affair, while Lilgert said he initiated the break-up.

At the start of the trial, Lilgert's lawyer told the jury Lilgert and Briker were in love and had once talked about having children.

However, both Briker and Lilgert downplayed the relationship as nothing more than a sexual affair. Briker laughed when she was asked whether she and Lilgert ever talked about children.

The Crown has alleged Lilgert neglected his duties when he missed the scheduled turn and then failed to take any action to avoid the island.

The defence has said Lilgert was hampered by poor training, unreliable equipment and rough weather. Lilgert's lawyers have also suggested a nearby fishing boat forced the ferry off course.

Also on HuffPost

Karl Lilgert Trial: Queen Of The North Ferry Sinking