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Coast Guard rescuer describes ‘eerie’ scene where Queen of the North sank

An undated handout photo of the Queen of the North ferry.

THE CANADIAN PRESS

Morgan Chisholm was at the helm of a Coast Guard fast-rescue craft, speeding around the tip of an island off the northern coast of British Columbia, when he saw the glow of lights reflecting off the clouds.

He was certain it was the Queen of the North passenger ferry, which was crippled and taking on water after striking the opposite end of that island, but the light suddenly disappeared.

"I just assumed [the ferry] had gone behind a mountain," Mr. Chisholm testified Tuesday at the criminal negligence trial of a Queen of the North crew member. "About two minutes later, the [Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid] Laurier called us and said the Queen of the North was gone, which put a bit of fear into us."

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The Queen of the North had sailed into Gil Island shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, ripping apart its hull and forcing its passengers and crew into life rafts and life boats to wait for help in the darkness.

The stories of the survivors and of those sent to the scene to help are being retold at the trial of navigation officer Karl Lilgert, who is charged with criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers.

When Mr. Chisholm saw the glow from the Queen of the North disappear, he didn't know how many people made it to safety or whether anyone was missing or in the water. He had been roused from sleep by a colleague aboard the Sir Wilfrid Laurier and told a ferry had sailed into a rock, but otherwise he had little information about the disaster he was heading towards.

Another Coast Guard crew member aboard the fast-rescue craft pointed a search light into the water ahead, lighting up the reflective tape on countless life jackets.

"At this point, we don't know anything," Mr. Chisholm told a B.C. Supreme Court jury. "All we could see were life jackets floating on the top of the water, and it stopped us dead. We didn't talk. It was eerie."

Mr. Chisholm's fast-rescue craft reached the scene a short time later, encountering two life boats and several life rafts filled with survivors, as well as nearby fishing boats that had already arrived. Before long, another Coast Guard rescue craft arrived on the scene, as did the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which had been anchored south of Gil Island, in an area known as Barnard Harbour, before the ferry's distress call.

All told, 99 passengers and crew were accounted for, but two others, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and presumed drowned.

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Mr. Chisholm and the other Coast Guard members set to work overseeing the rescue.

The passengers in inflatable life rafts appeared wet and uncomfortable, he said, so the Coast Guard crew moved them to the rigid-hull life boats before they were eventually picked up by fishing boats to be transported to safety. Most of the passengers ended up in the nearby first nations community of Hartley Bay, while three dozen people, mostly crew, were taken aboard the Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

Once back on the Laurier, Mr. Chisholm snuck away for a nap before he was handed another task. There were concerns two crew members – Mr. Lilgert and quartermaster Karen Briker, who was the only other person on the bridge when the ferry hit the island – could be suicidal, and Mr. Chisholm was told to take them to Hartley Bay so they could board a helicopter.

Mr. Chisholm said Mr. Lilgert and Ms. Briker sat beside each other at the front of fast-rescue craft during the trip to Hartley Bay. They talked, with Mr. Lilgert pointing at various points in the distance, but Mr. Chisholm said he couldn't hear what they were saying.

"You could definitely tell that Karl and the quartermaster were comforting each other," Mr. Chisholm said. "Have you ever seen anybody who's walked away from a car accident? She didn't look well. She had zero colour in her face and she looked like she was anxiety-ridden."

The trial has already heard Mr. Lilgert and Ms. Briker had been involved in a sexual affair until about two weeks before the sinking. The night of the sinking was their first time working alone together since Ms. Briker ended the affair.

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The Crown has alleged Mr. Lilgert failed in his duties when he missed a scheduled course alteration and sailed the ferry into an island.

The defence has blamed poor weather, bad training and unreliable equipment, while also suggesting the ferry was off course because Mr. Lilgert was attempting to avoid a fishing boat.

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

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