03/21/2013 04:37 EDT | Updated 05/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Unreliable tallies of ferry survivors didn't affect search: coast guard captain

VANCOUVER - The confusion over whether the Queen of the North's passengers were all accounted for after the ferry sank off the northern coast of British Columbia didn't affect the search for potential survivors, a coast guard captain told a crew member's criminal negligence trial Thursday.

The trial for Karl Lilgert, who is charged in the deaths of two passengers, has heard rescue officials were faced with constantly shifting tallies of survivors, with initial counts indicating all 101 passengers and crew had made it off to safety.

But Mark Taylor, captain of the first coast guard ship to reach the scene, said those early numbers didn't significantly change his response. Even though the ferry's crew believed everyone was safe, Taylor ordered a search, anyway.

"When you're faced with a scene like that — you come up on a sunken ship, they think they got everybody but they're not sure — you never know," Taylor told a B.C. Supreme Court jury.

"What you do is you try to do an exhaustive search of the area using the resources you have until the probability of detection and survival has been exhausted."

The Queen of the North struck Gil Island and sank as it sailed down B.C.'s Inside Passage in the early hours of March 22, 2006. The Sir Wilfrid Laurier, a coast guard icebreaker, was anchored more than 30 kilometres to the south.

As the Sir Wilfrid Laurier approached the scene, Taylor radioed the sunken ferry's captain to get a sense of what he was heading into.

"Are you confident that everybody is accounted for?" Taylor asked, according to audio recordings played in court.

"Negative," replied the Queen of the North's captain, Colin Henthorne.

By the time the Sir Wilfrid Laurier reached the scene, a number of fishing boats, mostly from the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay, had already arrived and were transporting survivors to Hartley Bay.

Taylor oversaw the rest of that process and also launched a search of the surrounding area.

By then, the ferry's crew had attempted to count the survivors numerous times, but repeatedly reached different totals, ranging from as low as 99 to as high as 103. There were similar efforts later, once everyone was either in Hartley Bay or the coast guard ship, but they were plagued by similar problems.

Taylor ordered the Sir Wilfrid Laurier's pair of fast-rescue boats to conduct a grid search of the debris field — a drifting mess of life jackets covered in diesel fuel for signs of anyone in the water.

As fishing boats returned from dropping off survivors in Hartley Bay, they, too, joined the search.

Additional boats arrived as the morning progressed, with 11 private boats and a number of coast guard vessels eventually searching a wide area around the northern half of Gil Island, said Taylor.

They didn't find anyone, even though by the end of the search it was clear two passengers were missing.

"There was nobody in the water who could have survived," he said.

"It seemed to indicate there may have been two people in the water or in the ferry, but the probability of finding somebody who was alive after our exhaustive search — nobody could have escaped our search."

Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and are presumed drowned.

Lilgert was on the ferry's bridge as navigation officer, while quartermaster Karen Briker, Lilgert's former lover, was the quartermaster. It was their first shift working alone together since their affair ended two weeks earlier.

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