A BC Ferries worker who barely escaped the sinking Queen of the North ferry says that after three years of struggling with mental and physical injuries, she is now battling a government agency to have her compensation extended.
The B.C. ferry ran aground off the West Coast during the early morning hours of March 22, 2006. Two passengers, whose bodies were never found, are presumed to have died when it sank.
Now, many of the 101 surviving passengers and crew say they are still suffering from stress and trauma linked to the sinking of the ship.
This week in Vancouver, many of the passengers on board the ill-fated vessel that night began testifying in B.C. Supreme Court as part of a class-action lawsuit, after rejecting a settlement offer from BC Ferries earlier this year.
But at least one crew member has told CBC News she is also fighting for support, as WorkSafeBC gets ready to end her compensation benefits.
Awoke with a bang
Lynn Cloutier, a cook and cleaner with 15 years' service on the ferries, was sleeping in her quarters below deck when she was awoken by a violent crash.
"All of a sudden, I put my feet down. There was another hit and I saw there was water on the floor," Cloutier, 54, said.
When the boat banged a third time, a large metal locker ripped from the wall, jamming up against the door and blocking her escape.
'I'm not the person I was three years ago. I never will be. Some days it's just too much. I can't take it.' — Lynn Cloutier
Outside, fellow crew member Linda Parent began banging on the door to warn Cloutier to get out.
"She was yelling I'm going to drown and I kept yelling, 'Open the f---ing door! We're going down!' " Cloutier recounted.
But Parent could not open the door and thought it was locked.
"I was saying, 'No, no, no. It's not locked,' and on her side the water was rising even higher on that side, so she couldn't stay," Cloutier said.
Unable to open the door, Parent went looking for an axe or someone to help, leaving Cloutier alone as the water continued to rise.
"I thought I was going to die that night… so I prayed… if God wanted to not let me suffer.... I was getting myself ready for that," she said.
But then something happened that convinced Cloutier to try one last time to fight her way out.
"I got a flashback of my grandkids:… 'Grandma, we need you…. You need to get out of here,' " she said.
So Cloutier put her tiny 5-foot-1 frame against the locker and pushed with all her might.
And it moved. Cloutier was able to open her cabin door and, as the water level flooded in up to her eyes, she made it to the stairs and escaped the lower decks.
Once on deck, Cloutier said her training kicked in and she joined the other crew and helped the passengers board the vessel's life rafts.
Two passengers never escaped.
At the time of the crash, Cloutier said, she felt she was caught in a nightmare from which she could not wake up.
"This cannot be happening. I'm having a nightmare," she said she thought as she fled up the ship's stairs.
Three years later, Cloutier said the very real experience still haunts her like a nightmare.
Cloutier said she still wakes up hearing the bangs of the ship's running aground. "My dream is the three bangs… and it's real. I wake up and it's like I'm on the ship," she said.
In addition, she said she still suffers from physical and mental injuries from that night. Her body is still damaged from moving the locker, and she is on heavy doses of pain medication because she's always in pain, she said.
But it is her mental health that is her real concern. Cloutier said she has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, which often leaves her shaking and unable to sleep.
"I'm not the person I was three years ago. I never will be. Some days it's just too much. I can't take it," she said.
Parent said she's having little success leaving the sinking behind, and has since left BC Ferries for good.
"I did a lot of crying, had a lot of nightmares. I've been on medication for three years. We're never going to be the same. Even the ones that went back to work still … aren't the same," Parent told CBC News.
Compensation running out
According to WorkSafeBC, the majority of the crew on board that night filed claims for compensation after the accident.
Parent's career is effectively over. She remains on disability through WorkSafeBC and accepted a compensation package from BC Ferries, saying she couldn't go back in any capacity.
Cloutier also receives benefits, which are set to end soon. She said WorkSafeBC has decided she should return to work, a decision she wants reversed.
WorkSafeBC spokesman Chris Hartmann said Tuesday that Cloutier's recovery has plateaued and she has to go back to work.
"Based on all the medical evidence that we have from a physical perspective and a psychological perspective, we still believe that those positions offered by the employer are reasonable," Hartmann said.
Cloutier said, "They cut me off too soon. I'm not getting better. Instead of getting ahead, I'm going backward."
She said she used to love her job, but now, three years after barely escaping with her life, she doesn't know what she will do if she loses her workers compensation, and she cannot bring herself to return to work once again.