Officer in fatal sinking of Canadian ferry faces charge of criminal negligence

An officer on the bridge of a ferry that sank off British Columbia four years ago, killing two passengers, has been charged with criminal negligence.

Karl Lilgert was the fourth officer on Queen of the North during a squall on March 22, 2006. He was serving as navigating officer when the B.C. Ferries vessel struck rocks off Gil Island.

The 406-foot Queen of the North was on its regular run from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy when the vessel failed to make a critical course change at Sainty Point. The route is in British Columbia’s Inside Passage.

There were 101 passengers and crew who successfully abandoned the vessel before it sank 80 minutes after the grounding. Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were missing and presumed drowned. The 8,806-gross-ton ferry had a capacity of 115 vehicles and up to 650 passengers and 65 crewmembers.

In its report on the sinking, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) found that Lilgert and the quartermaster were engaged in a personal conversation at the time of the incident. Lilgert believed the ship already had made its course change, and the personal chat continued for 14 minutes. The alarm that should have notified the crew that the vessel was off-course was switched off.

Lilgert and the quartermaster were alone on the bridge because the second officer was on his meal break. B.C. Ferries, which determined that the trio failed to follow normal procedures, dismissed all three in April 2007.

On March 15, 2010, Lilgert was charged with criminal negligence causing death.

“Mr. Lilgert was charged as the navigating officer at the time and responsible for steering the vessel at the time of the incident,” said Neil MacKenzie, spokesman for the criminal justice branch of British Columbia.

MacKenzie said that as far as the branch is aware, this is the first time that charges of criminal negligence have been laid in a Canadian passenger ferry accident.

“Crown received its first investigation report from the police in February of 2008,” said MacKenzie. “The branch reviewed the initial report from the police and the Transport Canada investigation and the branch determined that some additional investigation was required before we could complete the charge assessment process.

“Since that time there has been ongoing communication between police and the Crown resulting in the charges being approved. There are two charges of criminal negligence causing death.”

The TSB attributed the accident to “a failure of the system.”

“Sound watchkeeping practices were not followed, and the bridge watch lacked a third certified person,” said TSB chairman Wendy Tadros at the March 2008 release of the agency’s report.

In its conclusions, the TSB report stated: “The working environment on the bridge of the Queen of the North was less than formal, and the accepted principles of navigation safety were not consistently or rigorously applied. Unsafe navigation practices persisted which, in this occurrence, contributed to the loss of situational awareness by the bridge team.”

Lilgert intends to plead not guilty, according to his lawyer, Glen Orrisat. An arraignment hearing was scheduled for April 28. The maximum penalty for criminal negligence causing death is life imprisonment.

Canadian mariners have faced criminal negligence charges at least once before.

Capt. Gordon Stogdale of the Canadian coast guard ship Griffon was charged with dangerous operation of a vessel causing death after a fatal 1991 collision between his ship and the fishing vessel Captain K, at Long Point Bay, Lake Erie. Three men aboard Captain K died.

Stogdale, as master of Griffon, and William Lloyd Bennett, as the officer of the watch at the time of the collision, were charged with three counts of criminal negligence causing death and three counts of dangerous operation or navigation of a vessel causing death. Stogdale was acquitted of criminal negligence but convicted of dangerous operation. Bennett was acquitted on all charges. Stogdale was acquitted on appeal.

By Professional Mariner Staff