The Second Officer on the Queen of the North remembers rushing from a meal in the officers' lounge to the bridge and spotting evidence that the vessel had crashed.
"I could see on the radar there was a lot of red," Hilton told B.C. Supreme Court on Monday, explaining red on the screen represents land.
"I could see the ship was right up against the red. We had run aground," he said of the incident just after midnight on March 22, 2006, when the vessel missed a critical turn while sailing down B.C.'s Inside Passage and struck Gil Island.
Hilton's testimony about the sinking of the BC Ferries vessel off the northwest coast of British Columbia came during the trial of Karl Lilgert, who is accused of criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers who were missing and presumed drowned.
In halting words, he described arriving at the deck and hearing quartermaster Karen Bricker tell him to "Come quickly, something terrible has happened."
He also saw Lilgert, the Fourth Officer, who earlier that night had traded off responsibilities with him for navigating the ship.
Hilton told court he was surprised that Lilgert had returned to the bridge early from a break, not long after his former lover Karen Bricker arrived there for her role as quartermaster.
Court has heard Lilgert and Bricker were working alone together for the first time since their affair had ended.
The defence argues the crash was caused by poor training, bad policies and unreliable equipment.
Hilton said that as he arrived he didn't see anyone standing at either of the two steering wheels, nor any charts on a table for navigational purposes.
Within just over a minute, he was radioing the ship's position to marine traffic controllers.
He said shock wasn't quite the right word to describe his state of mind, and that he went into autopilot mode. He observed on one of the radar screens that there was no trouble seeing Gil Island.
Shortly after, Hilton had Lilgert join him to release the ship's anchors. Below deck, he asked his colleague what happened.
"He gave me an indeterminate answer, basically 'I don't know,'" he said of Lilgert, adding he didn't press for further details.
By that time, other crew members had determined they must abandon ship. Hilton asked another senior officer if he could assess the situation, got permission and descended to a lower deck.
"I wanted to ... see what damage was done and where we were taking on water," he slowly told court, taking a tissue and lowering his head.
He ran up and down different stairwells, surveying for people and water. He then joined the lowering life rafts, where a head count was done.
A fishing vessel and power boat had arrived in the remote area at that point to assist, and Hilton asked the faster boat to circle around the Queen of the North to check if anyone was still on board. They reported back that they hadn't found anything.
Hilton then got into a Zodiac inflatable boat and circled the ship himself, looking into the windows with a flashlight.
He could hear some of the cars inside the ferry begin to slide as the ship started to go down by the stern, he said.
"You could hear the windows popping and things breaking and the lights were on and they suddenly went off. (The ship) disappeared under the water."
Passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were never seen again, believed to have died in the incident. Some 99 other people survived.
Lilgert has pleaded not guilty.
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