BRITISH COLUMBIA

Karl Lilgert Trial: BC Ferry Officer 'Absolutely Horrified' Before Crash

04/23/2013 04:21 EDT | Updated 06/23/2013 05:12 EDT
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VANCOUVER - The man at the helm of the B.C. ferry the night it sank told jurors he should have taken the ship off of autopilot himself instead of relying on the only other person on the bridge.

Karl Lilgert broke into tears several times at his criminal negligence trial as he described the night in March 2006 when the Queen of the North hit an island off British Columbia's northern coast and sank.

"I know now that it would have been much more effective just to go to that wheel and do it myself," said Lilgert, testifying in his own defence for the second day.

"There was so much more I could have done."

Lilgert said he was waiting to take command of the ship to steer it safely around Gil Island, but when he asked Karen Briker to hit the switch, she replied that she didn't know how.

"My heart just sank," Lilgert said, stopping his testimony to compose himself.

"I had a moment where I wasn't sure what to do."

Briker — Lilgert's former lover — told court earlier that it was Lilgert who eventually switched the autopilot off, but Lilgert said that's not how he remembers it.

Briker testified that, as a deckhand, she was not trained in how to turn the autopilot system on and off.

But Lilgert said it was Briker who eventually followed his command and switched the controls so he could attempt to manoeuvre the boat around the approaching island.

Before the boat struck Gil Island, Lilgert said he was attempting to adjust a set of radars to give him a better idea of what was ahead.

Rough seas were cluttering the image, and he couldn't tell the difference between land and sea when he looked at the radar screen, he said.

Lilgert told the court he was unfamiliar with one of the newer radar systems, but he fiddled with it in an attempt to get a clearer image.

"As I was playing with the controls I caught something out of the corner of my eye and I looked up and I saw the trees," he said. "I was absolutely horrified."

"I looked away, (my) adrenaline went up, heart rate went up, anxiety went up," Lilgert told the court.

"Did you realize it was Gil island?" asked Glen Orris, Lilgert's lawyer.

"I wasn't sure," he replied, holding back tears, "but I suspected it might have been."

Then everything went silent.

"There is a constant noise that you don't really hear until its gone," Lilgert explained.

At first he thought he had managed to avoid hitting the island, that everything would be fine, Lilgert told the jury.

Then alarm bells started sounding and the bridge flooded with frantic people, Lilgert said.

"I was just an emotional mess at that point," he said, adding that he didn't recall radioing for help, though he agrees the recording of the distress call is of him.

After the passengers and crew evacuated, Lilgert watched as the Queen of the North sank.

"At one point, the boat started to rise out of the water and it went vertical and sort of sat there for a moment, and it was crashing, lots of noise, lots of things breaking, you could hear that, and then the ship started to sink, vertically"

He said he was relieved when he kept hearing that the passenger count was 102, but the actual count was 99 and it was only later discovered that Shirley Rosette and Gerald Foisy were missing.

Lilgert is accused of criminal negligence causing their deaths. He has pleaded not guilty.

The Crown has alleged that Lilgert neglected his duties when he missed a scheduled course alteration and then failed to take any action to avoid Gil Island.

Lilgert, under intense questioning from the Crown, explained to the court that he made a course alteration to avoid a tugboat in Wright Sound and planned to re-adjust his heading.

"My decision was to go deeper into Wright Sound for about three minutes and then alter course," Lilgert said.

When asked why he chose three minutes as a number, Lilgert said "three minutes wouldn't put me in any danger of Gil Island and would allow me enough room between the Queen of the North and the tug."

Then the wind started to pick up, Lilgert said. The rain got harder.

"I could hear it against the windows," he said.

He made the course alteration at the three minute mark as he had planned.

But when he turned on an electronic chart to check his course, Lilgert said he noticed the ship was further north than he thought it was.

"I thought, hmm, we are being set pretty good with this wind. We were getting futher aport. We were travelling forward but we were getting sucked aport," Lilgert said.

He said he wanted to allow for a safe distance between the vessel he identified on the radar and the Queen of the North.

To make up for the wind's effect, Lilgert said he decided to alter the course to the starboard — towards Gil Island.

Lilgert said his plan was to sail past the island at three cables — or about half a kilometre — which would take the Queen of North between Gil Island and the boat Lilgert saw on the radar.

When pressed by the Crown, who said Lilgert made a course alteration that was taking the ferry on a direct course to Gil Island, Lilgert quipped back, "I wasn't steering it to Gil Island. I was three cables off. Three cables is perfect. It's what we use going through McKay Reach."

Lilgert admitted that at that point he was not able to see Gil Island, but said "I did not believe for a moment that we are going to be closer than three cables to Gil Island."

But they were closer. "I was so certain that I was three cables off," Lilgert said, "I was shocked in realizing that that wasn't where I was."

Under cross examination the court learned about Lilgert's thousands of hours of experience commanding vessels at sea.

The Crown has painted a picture of an experienced seaman who spent most of the months leading up to the incident acting as a senior officer for BC Ferries.

The court has also learned many intimate details of the relationship between Lilgert and Briker, the ship's deckhand who was on the bridge with Lilgert that night, but it is not yet clear how the relationship fits into the Crown's case.

Lilgert continued to downplay the significance of the relationship — which ended just weeks before the accident.

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