Four years after the sinking of the Queen of the North, the ferry's navigating officer has been charged with criminal negligence in the deaths of two passengers - the only fatalities when the vessel ran aground.
On March 22, 2006, the Queen of the North, operated by B.C. Ferries, struck bottom on the north side of Gil Island, sinking 80 minutes after impact.
"It shook the company to its core," B.C. Ferries president David Hahn said Tuesday of the only such accident in the 52-year history of the privately operated, but provincially owned, entity.
Learn why the ferry went down
Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were unaccounted for and presumed drowned. A total of 101 crew and passengers escaped. The couple's bodies have never been found.
Karl Lilgert, eventually fired after the sinking, will plead not guilty at an April 14 court appearance, his lawyer, Glen Orris, said yesterday after the Crown announced the two charges, which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Mr. Orris noted that it has taken four years for charges to come in the case, which has been the subject of various investigations by parties including the RCMP and the Transportation Safety Board.
"It doesn't strike me as being an open and shut case, otherwise we would have seen charges a lot sooner," Mr. Orris said.
"I am not sure, at this stage, what evidence the Crown feels it has that elevates this to a criminal negligence level, as opposed to simply somebody who may have made a mistake."
The criminal justice branch of the Ministry of the Attorney-General said it had conducted a "detailed and involved" investigation into evidence gathered by police, and concluded the available evidence does not support charging anyone other than Mr. Lilgert.
"Mr. Lilgert has been charged on the basis that he was the navigating officer responsible for steering the vessel at the time of the incident," a statement from the criminal justice branch said.
At the time of the accident off the central-coast island, Mr. Lilgert was with quartermaster Karen Bricker. The two, a former couple, were engaged in what a Transportation Safety Board report on the incident described as a personal conversation, when the ship struck bottom.
The board concluded that the pair failed to make a crucial course correction.
Mr. Lilgert, Ms. Bricker and Kevenv Hilton, a second officer, were all eventually fired.
But Mr. Orris said he was not surprised that the Crown focused on his client.
"Mr. Lilgert has never denied the fact that he was the one in charge of the boat and steering it at the time of the accident, so obviously he is the obvious one that the Crown would look at as being responsible," he said.
Ms. Bricker's lawyer said he did not know if his client would be called to testify in the case because the Crown had not raised the matter with him.
But Christopher Giaschi noted that Ms. Bricker has co-operated in every probe of the case. "She has never not co-operated," he said.
Former Crown Robert Mulligan said yesterday that prosecutors will face a daunting challenge in the case, which is unusual in criminal negligence matters because it involves a ferry.
"It must be shown [the defendant's]fault was of such a degree that [he] showed wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of others," said Mr. Mulligan, now a criminal lawyer.
Peter Ritchie, lawyer for Mr. Foisy's two daughters, said he was disappointed it took so long for charges to be laid.
B.C. Ferries settled a lawsuit on the children's behalf for $200,000.
"When we acted for the children, we were able to get down to the facts of the case quickly," Mr. Ritchie said.
"I certainly hope the public will learn about what really happened on that vessel," he added. "I am keenly interested to see what happens."
Mr. Hahn of B.C. Ferries said he could say little about yesterday's developments because the case is before the courts.
"Maybe this will bring some closure for the families that lost their loved ones and the other people that were on the ship that night, but I think it's pretty important that we don't comment too much or get carried away because there is also a requirement to have a fair process," he said.
The president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union said he hopes the proceedings provide some closure for all parties, including the families of the deceased, passengers and ferry employees.
He noted that the company has had nothing to do with Mr. Lilgert in some time, but he "is entitled to due process."