BRITISH COLUMBIA

Officer of sunken B.C. ferry says he didn't tell crew about other vessel

04/24/2013 05:59 EDT | Updated 06/24/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - The man navigating a BC ferry the night it ran aground and sank said he altered course to avoid another vessel, but didn't tell anyone about the other ship, even though it could have helped in the subsequent rescue effort.

Karl Lilgert was testifying in his own defence for the third day in a row at his trial on charges of criminal negligence causing the death of two passengers in the sinking of the Queen of the North in 2006.

Lilgert, under intense cross-examination by Crown prosecutor Michel Huot, said he altered the course of the ferry towards Gil Island to account for a southerly wind that was pushing the ship closer to another vessel he identified on the radar.

Lilgert said he was shocked to see the trees of Gil Island appear in the ferry window when he believed his intended course should have kept the vessel away from land.

The Crown has alleged Lilgert neglected his duties when he missed a scheduled course alteration and then failed to take any action to avoid Gil Island. In the early morning hours of March 22, 2006, the Queen of the North eventually sank, trapping two passengers who are now presumed dead.

The court has heard that Lilgert and Karen Briker — a deckhand with whom Lilgert had an extramarital affair — were alone on the bridge that night before Kevin Hilton, the ship's Second Officer, burst into the room wondering what had gone wrong.

Hilton, who testified two months ago about the incident, has been in court to watch Lilgert's testimony, taking notes but often hanging his head low, avoiding the courtroom scene unfolding before him.

"You knew you were responsible for driving that ship into Gil Island," Huot said to Lilgert during cross-examination.

"I never once denied that," Lilgert replied.

"Knowing what you'd done, I take it you were concerned for the welfare of the crew members and passengers?"

"That was my first concern," Lilgert said, his voice cracking.

"Did you mention to anyone at any time that there was a boat nearby that might be able to assist?" the Crown prosecutor asked, referring to the boat Lilgert said he was navigating to avoid.

"I don't remember any of that."

Lilgert said he could not remember alerting anyone of the other ship's presence, even while he sat in a lifeboat waiting for help to arrive.

The Crown spent a considerable amount of time questioning Lilgert about the precise moment he altered the ferry's course to adjust for the southerly wind that he said was taking the ship off track.

At one point Huot presented a map of Wright Sound to Lilgert and asked him to mark where he made course alterations and where he thought the other ship was.

At first Huot pointed to a map under a projector, showing the jury and the audience where the ferry was and where Lilgert's testimony suggested it would end up.

But Lilgert objected, grabbed a pencil and paper, did the calculations himself and marked the route on the map.

The marked map showed a path roughly between the vessel he said he saw and the shore of Gil Island.

Lilgert said he made the course alteration after a squall enveloped the other vessel, but before the squall enveloped the Queen of the North.

Lilgert told the court he plotted a course that he thought would keep the ferry three cables — or about half a kilometre — off the coast of the island.

But it was then, while Lilgert was playing with the radar controls, trying to get a clearer picture, that he said he saw the trees of Gil Island and knew the ship was not in the position it was supposed to be.

Lilgert has testified he ordered Briker to make the course alterations to account for the other ship and the wind which was pushing the ferry slightly north.

However the court has already seen video evidence of the electronic navigation system that shows the Queen of the North travelling on a course towards Gil Island — a course that does not reflect the two alterations Lilgert said he made.

"I can't explain (the electronic chart system) playback. I can only tell you what happened," Lilgert said.

The court has already heard considerable details about Lilgert's thousands of hours as a mariner, his extensive training on navigational equipment and his knowledge of good seamanship.

At one point during the days-long cross-examination, the Crown read out a series of rules from the collision regulations section of the Canada Shipping Act.

The court learned what officers are supposed to do under conditions of restricted visibility, and that Lilgert was aware of those regulations on the night in question.

The regulations state navigation officers should take the effect the weather is having on their radar equipment into consideration when determining a safe speed.

The Crown read several of the orders, including one that requires a navigation officer to inform the Master when there is restricted visibility, a propulsion, steering or navigation failure, or any doubt concerning navigation or handling of the ship or any doubt of any kind.

"You understood that in a situation where visibility was restricted or that there was any doubt concerning navigation or handling of the ship, the Master was to be called?" asked Huot.

"Yes."

Court has already learned that no other officers went to the bridge before the ferry struck the island.