Court hears terrifying tale from crew on the sinking Queen of the North

VANCOUVER – Lynn Cloutier narrowly escaped being pulled to the bottom of the sea with the Queen of the North passenger ferry, but she was in no hurry to leave the sinking ship.

For nearly 20 minutes after the ferry struck an island shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, Cloutier was trapped inside her cabin on one of the ship’s lower decks, a steel clothing locker was blocking her door while the small room filling with water.

But once she freed herself — now cold, wet and without her glasses — Cloutier jumped into action on the upper decks, a crew member’s criminal negligence trial heard Wednesday.

She headed to her assigned rescue station and started giving orders to her colleagues. The shepherd boat, a motorized craft that is supposed to be the first in the water during an evacuation, needed to be lowered immediately, she told them.

“I didn’t watch,” Cloutier told the court. “I took over.”

Cloutier is among dozens of crew and passengers expected to testify at Karl Lilgert’s trial. Lilgert, who was the ship’s navigating officer that night, is charged with criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers.

In earlier testimony, Cloutier recalled the frightening moments that followed the collision — becoming trapped in her cabin and somehow finding the strength to move the steel clothing locker that was blocking her escape moments before the water rose above her head.

On Wednesday, Cloutier told the court what happened next.

Her first duty in the event of an emergency was to check the ship’s passenger lounge, but another crew member told her it had already been checked twice, so she proceeded to the outside deck, where it was chilly and raining.

“It looked like a disaster,” she said.

“The life boat was sitting sideways, almost upside down. The life raft was knocked down. The ship was listing really bad.”

Once the shepherd boat was in the water, Cloutier struggled to retrieve a life raft that had become stuck because of the vessel’s tilt.

“At that time, the ship went and listed again and it felt like we were going over, and I thought that was it,” she said.

Once the ferry stopped shifting, crew members were able to free the life raft, inflate it, load it with passengers and lower it into the water, she said.

With one raft down, Cloutier set to work preparing the next life raft for the evacuees.

“I was proceeding to do another raft, but they grabbed me and said, ‘You are too cold and wet — go on the life boat,’ and they took me to the life boat,” she said.

Even when she was in the water, she told her colleagues that she wanted to be back on the ferry to help finish the evacuation and ensure everyone had made it off the ship, she said.

The ferry had been carrying 101 passengers and crew as it sailed down B.C.’s Inside Passage until it ran aground at Gil Island. Two of those passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and presumed drowned.

Cloutier waited with the other crew and passengers in the rafts and boats until a coast guard ship and fishing boats arrived from the nearby First Nations community of Hartley Bay to pick them up.

Some passengers were taken to the coast guard ship Sir Wilfred Laurier, while the rest were transported to Hartley Bay, where they were met with blankets, hot coffee and food.

Cloutier found a phone and attempted to phone her husband, she said. He had been scheduled to leave town and she wanted to make sure he’d be waiting for her when she arrived home.

She dialled her husband, and there was no answer, so she phoned a family friend. The friend didn’t recognize her voice.

“I said the ship sank and he thought I was a crank call,” said Cloutier.

“My voice was so shaky because I was too cold.”

Later in the morning, a helicopter transported Cloutier and other crew members, including Lilgert, to Prince Rupert.

The trial has already heard Lilgert was on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Bricker, his former lover, when the ship missed a critical course alteration and sailed toward Gil Island. It was their first time working alone together since their affair ended.

The Crown has accused Lilgert of failing in his duties by missing the turn, which prosecutors have argued demonstrated a disregard for the safety of the passengers and crew.

The defence has argued Lilgert was saddled with poor training and unreliable equipment, which ultimately led to the errors that caused the crash.

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

His trial, before a jury, is expected to last up to six months.