VANCOUVER – Seven years after the Queen of the North passenger ferry sank off the coast of British Columbia, memories of that night moved Lawrence Papineau to tears and anger.
The 46-year-old Ontario man, who was on the ferry with his wife on its final voyage, choked up as stepped into the witness stand Tuesday at the criminal negligence trial for one of the ship’s crew, even before he had the chance to spell his name and swear an oath to begin his testimony.
Minutes later, he stared directly at the accused — fourth officer Karl Lilgert — and left little doubt about who he blamed for the sinking, which left two passengers missing and presumed drowned.
“Everybody (among the crew) was good, except for the guy driving the boat,” said Papineau, his voice raised and his eyes locked in Lilgert’s direction.
Lilgert was the navigating officer on the Queen of the North’s bridge in the early morning of March 22, 2006, when the ship missed a turn and collided with an island.
Papineau wouldn’t have known that night that Lilgert was on the bridge, but he knows his name now. Lilgert was charged three years ago with criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who haven’t been seen since the sinking.
Papineau was on the ferry with his wife, Nancy Laughing-Papineau. The couple had travelled to B.C. to show off Laughing-Papineau’s native crafts at a youth conference in Kamloops and decided to ride the ferry down the province’s Inside Passage before returning home.
Papineau offered an emotional account of his experience the night of the sinking, including the moment the ship ran aground. He was asleep at the time.
“All of the sudden: boom, bang, shudder,” said Papineau.
“I could hear steel ripping. I know what it sounds like when you rip steel apart, so I knew it was bad right off the bat.”
Papineau and his wife rushed out of their cabin and onto an outside deck, where passengers were being loaded into life rafts.
Soon, they were on an inflatable life raft in the water, with only a single crew member assigned to watch over a raft full of more than 20 passengers, he said.
Papineau described a chaotic scene in his raft, with the crew member, a woman he believed worked in the ship’s kitchen, panicking and offering little help to the passengers.
Papineau said he essentially took over the life raft, shouting commands at other passengers to help push the raft away from the Queen of the North. He also swore at the crew member, who he said was complaining about being wet, and a passenger, who he said was asking to leave the life raft to switch to a rigid-hull life boat.
The passengers on that raft were eventually picked up by a fishing boat, the Lone Star, which happened to be in the area and responded to the ferry’s calls help.
Soon after arriving at the First Nations community of Hartley Bay, Papineau said he moved into another room in the community centre located upstairs.
“I just had to go up because it was dark I had to go up to be alone. I was just lying there thinking about what could have happened.”
His wife, Laughing-Papineau, told the court she befriended Rosette’s family after the sinking and they have remained in contact since.
Laughing-Papineau told the court she found out Rosette was aboriginal, like her, and asked a BC Ferries official to pass on an invitation to her family to meet. They met in Prince Rupert, where the passengers were taken after the sinking, she said.
When Laughing-Papineau saw a photograph of the missing couple on the day of the sinking, she and her husband said they did not recognize them.
But several weeks later, they both said they realized they had, in fact, spotted them on an outer deck of the ferry as it departed from Prince Rupert.
Neither told the police about the revelation, but Laughing-Papineau called Rosette’s family to let them know, she said.
“We didn’t remember them until about two weeks after the accident, because at the time we didn’t put it together,” said Laughing-Papineau.
The Crown alleges Lilgert was negligent when he missed a scheduled course alteration and sailed the ferry into Gil Island.
The defence has suggested poor weather, inadequate training, unreliable equipment and rough weather all contributed to the sinking.
Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous story said that Lilgert pleaded guilty.