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Officer in ferry sinking trial defends himself in court

Karl Lilgert, centre, is seen leaving at the B.C. Supreme Court with family members in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, January, 17, 2013. Lilgert is accused of causing death after two passengers died when the Queen of the North ferry sank.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The wind began to howl, the rain pelting hard against the windows. In the darkened bridge of the Queen of the North passenger ferry, officer Karl Lilgert ordered a correction in the ship's course through the narrow Inland Passage south of Prince Rupert.

He had spied a small boat on the radar in the worsening weather and wanted to be sure the large ferry was well clear as it prepared to bypass Gil Island.

As a spellbound courtroom listened, Mr. Lilgert picked up the story.

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"I can see the tail end of the squall on the radar. … I catch something out of the corner of my eye, and there's trees," he testified.

Aghast, Mr. Lilgert swore to himself. "And I look away, because I don't believe it."

Mr. Lilgert's voice wavered, overcome with emotion, leading B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein to recess proceedings for the day.

The dramatic testimony concluded a full day on the witness stand for the former B.C. Ferries officer, charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers on the Queen of the North, which slammed into Gil Island and sank.

The collision occurred in the early hours of March 22, 2006. Ninety-nine crew members and passengers were rescued. Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette have never been found.

The Crown alleges the mishap occurred because Mr. Lilgert failed to order a crucial change in the ship's path as it approached the large, rocky island.

Until the final moments, Mr. Lilgert had testified confidently on Monday in his own defence, detailing his duties as navigating officer on the fateful night and playing down as a factor in the collision a just-ended affair with the only other crew member on the bridge at the time, Karen Briker.

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It was the first time the public has heard his version of events.

Both Mr. Lilgert and Ms. Briker were fired by B.C. Ferries after refusing to co-operate with the corporation's internal investigation.

He told the court of several matters that occupied his attention while the ferry was still north of Gil Island.

A squall was intensifying, he said. "The whistling in the doors [from the wind] was really loud. Gusts were up to 50 knots. Rain was very audible on the windows. Obviously, things were picking up."

At the same time, he noticed something on the radar screen that he thought might be a small wooden fishboat on the ferry's port side.

Just to be safe, Mr. Lilgert said he decided to alter course in the direction of Gil Island, but still leaving the Queen of the North "three cables", or about half a kilometre, from shore.

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"I figured that was lots of room and it was deep water. … I was happy with that, and I asked the quartermaster [Ms. Briker] to make that alteration."

Shortly afterwards, the large vessel plowed into the island.

Earlier Monday, wearing dark slacks, a black sweater and with his long, darkish hair combed neatly back to his collar, Mr. Lilgert detailed his extra-marital affair with Ms. Briker, which was mentioned prominently by the Crown in its opening address to the jury.

The two B.C. Ferries employees began an intense relationship in 2005, but called it off after their spouses discovered it.

That night on the bridge before the sinking was their first time alone together since the relationship ended several months earlier. The situation sparked a flood of rumours that the break-up had had something to do with the ferry's failure to avoid Gil Island.

But both Ms. Briker, in earlier testimony, and Mr. Lilgert, in his evidence to date, have indicated nothing untoward occurred, and they were not angry with each other at the time.

According to Ms. Briker, Mr. Lilgert told an officer just after the ship hit the island that he had been trying to go around a fishing boat "and we hit a squall and the [radar screen] whited out."

Mr. Lilgert is expected to continue testifying in his defense on Tuesday.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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