British Columbia·Exclusive

Queen of the North captain still haunted by sinking

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, the former captain of the Queen of the North, Colin Henthorne, described the harrowing night his ship sank into the sea with the loss of two lives.

Former BC Ferries captain Colin Henthorne recounts night that changed his life

Former captain Colin Henthorne, shown here leaving B.C. Supreme Court in February, recounts the night his ferry sank, in an exclusive interview with CBC News. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

When the Queen of the North set sail on the night of March 21, 2006, captain Colin Henthorne and his crew were set for what should have been a routine voyage down B.C.'s Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.

'I knew we were in deep trouble and I was in for a long night.'—Colin Henthorne, captain of the Queen of the North the night it sank

According to Henthorne, the weather was crisp and clear and the ship was in excellent condition. There was nothing to indicate that the trip would end with the BC Ferries vessel at the bottom of Wright Sound.

Henthorne told CBC News that after an hour on the bridge, he retired to his cabin and went to sleep, a routine he said happened hundreds of times throughout his career.

Jury out

Jury deliberations began late Tuesday in the trial of former BC Ferries officer Karl Lilgert, who was charged with two counts of criminal negligence causing death following the sinking of the Queen of the North. 

But a short time after falling asleep, the captain got a rude awakening. The situation had become anything but routine.

"I was wakened up by someone pounding on my door and shouting at me to get up and get up to the bridge, so I said, 'OK, I’m coming,' and before I could get fully dressed, the ship hit the ground," Henthorne said.

"I knew straight away that we had run aground, there was just no mistaking that. There was so much hard pounding and shaking and banging and the ship shaking and things falling off my desk, and I knew what it was — there was no mistaking it," he said.

"My first thought was we hit ground, and I knew we were in deep trouble, and I was in for a long night."

Henthorne said the ship's alarm bells were ringing at a deafening volume. Once on the bridge, he took a quick look at the radar and another look out the window in an effort to determine the ship's location, but there wasn't enough information available to reach a conclusion.

Henthorne said he quickly reached for the public address microphone and ordered all passengers to the emergency embarkation deck where they would board life-rafts and lifeboats.

The Queen of the North was divided by 11 bulkheads, or compartments, that run across the ship and each one had a water-tight door. Two of those doors remain open during voyages, but in this emergency situation, it was crucial that they be closed to prevent flooding.

From his position on the bridge, Henthorne was unable to contact the engine room to determine whether anyone would be caught and crushed to death if he closed the water-tight doors. It was the first of many life-or-death decisions he was forced to make that night.

"Although there's an alternate escape from each compartment, I have no way of knowing, from where I am on the bridge if those escapes have been cut off by something else, by damage, by flooding  or what," said Henthorne, "By closing the water-tight doors, I could be cutting off the escape of the people who are in there.

"That was the toughest decision I've ever made," he adds, "It wasn't a difficult process to arrive at the decision, as far as I was concerned that was the only decision, but it was a tough one to carry out."

Henthorne ordered a crew member to close the doors. Fortunately, he would later learn, none of his crew was trapped or injured because of the decision.

Controlled chaos on board

Henthorne said his crew headed to their stations in the moments following the crash. By the time he was on the bridge, radio calls had already been made. The captain said he saw the light of a vessel off in the distance and ordered flares to be fired.

The situation was complicated by the fact that Henthorne did not immediately realize that the ship was not aground, but adrift in deep water. According to the former captain, usually when a ship goes aground, it stays aground, but in this case, the Queen of the North had run over a reef, ripped the bottom out of the ship and slipped back out into deep water.

'There was a fear … that it might roll over completely.'— Henthorne

Then the ship began to list, tipping over to one side.

"There was a fear ... that it might roll over completely, but I ordered everyone over to the port side which was the high side and started evacuating straight away," said Henthorne.

There was more bad news to come. The next significant update Henthorne received was that water levels were above the rubbing strake, which is a band of steel that wraps around the boat.

"The rubbing strake is level with the car deck, and the significance of it is that when the water's above that, it means that you're sinking, you're going to the bottom, because there's no water tight integrity above the car deck," said Henthorne.

"That was the point that told us that we were going to the bottom, that there was no stopping it."

Shortly after that, word reached Henthorne from the engine room that water was gushing through at an alarmingly fast rate.

"The engineer said it was like the Slocan River, it was just flooding through there," he said.

Passengers calm and co-operative

Henthorne said the evacuation of the ship went smoothly with passengers and crew remaining calm and quiet throughout the process.

"There were a couple of older guys [passengers] there helping people into the life-raft, just taking their hand and helping them take the step across," said Henthorne. "They were so well organized, the two of them, I looked at them twice and I almost thought we had a couple more crew members that I didn’t know about."

Once the last of the passengers appeared to be safely off the ship, Henthorne had a fleeting moment of reflection as he stood alone on the ship deck. He spent more time on the Queen of the North than he did in any of his homes. The ship he knew so well was strange and unfamiliar.

"In the stark light of the deck lights I looked inside the ship," says the captain, "And for such a familiar place, it looked, being empty and with the bright fluorescent lights on inside, it just looked very stark and empty and cold."

Henthorne said he then ran up and down the passenger decks, doing one last-minute check, pushing each door open and yelling loudly in the hope that no one else was on board. After that, he and his two remaining deckhands climbed the ladder off the ship and into an awaiting Zodiac life vessel.

Watching the massive ship sink

As they floated in life-rafts and lifeboats in the waters of Wright Sound, the passengers and crew of the Queen of the North watched the hulking ship sink into the sea.

"A lot of people said it looked like something out of a movie, and it did, because where else do you get to see a ship sink," said Henthorne.

'It just went straight down, straight as an arrow, disappeared, gone.'— Henthorne

"It just settled lower and lower in the water and as I was watching it, all I could think about was 'my beautiful ship,'" he said, "Alternately praying for a miracle that would save it and. if that wasn't happening, just hurry up and get it over with."

The lights on board the ship went out deck by deck as the electricity shorted out in the water. Windows exploded from the pressure as the vessel sank lower into the ocean.

"You know that there's no stopping it, there's no power on Earth that's going to stop it from sinking," said Henthorne.

"When it got near the end, it rose up until the bow was vertical, absolutely pointing straight at the sky," the captain remembered. "Then, it just went straight down, straight as an arrow, disappeared, gone."

Missing passengers

Arriving at an accurate count of crew and passengers proved to be an extremely challenging task for the captain. At one point during the evacuation he counted 102, one more than the target number of 101. After a few more tries, he counted 101.

It was a while later, after some passengers had been picked up by coast guard vessels and others sent into nearby Hartley Bay, that Henthorne says he reached a count of 99 — two short of the number of people recorded on board at the start of the trip.

When speaking about Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, the two passengers who have never been found and were ruled by a judge to have died in the sinking of the ship, Henthorne's demeanour becomes even more serious as he searches for an explanation.

 "I don't know how they could've disappeared, I simply don’t know," he said.

"One of the things when we were counting people in the boat and I had my megaphone, I said, 'Is anybody missing a travelling companion?’ and nobody spoke up. Nobody noticed that they were not there."

Henthorne pointed out that, to his knowledge, the cabins on the ship were searched and the cafeteria was closed.

"There weren't that many places that they should've been," he said. "They could've been somewhere where they weren't authorized to be, I don’t know."

The captain said no one fell out of a lifeboat or raft after the evacuation and that the possibility exists that they may have disappeared in Hartley Bay. He reiterated that he is simply not sure what happened.

"It's troubling that I can't tell you why or come up with something better about where they are or what might've happened. I just don't know."

First a hero, then fired

Henthorne and the rest of his crew were treated like heroes in the first few days after the sinking. The crew received a letter from then-premier Gordon Campbell congratulating them for their "amazing rescue work" and "selfless courage."

'It was a rough few years. It was one step at a time for us.'— Henthorne

The captain also received a personal note from BC Ferries CEO David Hahn, thanking him for his professionalism and calm under pressure.

After the incident, Henthorne's plan was to re-group by going home to see his family, but he planned to get back to work fairly quickly. He felt that a short break and some trial sailings with supervisory support would suffice.

But after a month, he and the rest of the crew were informed that no one would be going back to work until the Transportation Safety Board of Canada had finished its investigation.

Ten months after the sinking of the Queen of the North, Henthorne said he received a surprise phone call from a BC Ferries human resources worker. He had been fired. Many members of his crew had been demoted.

"It takes everything out of you. You feel completely lost, completely deflated and you just feel like your legs have been knocked out from underneath you," said Henthorne.

"Especially considering the kudos I had been given. There hadn't been anything negative and the company came out with its own inquiry, there was nothing negative in there, no blame attached, so that was a pretty awful shock."

Henthorne initially fought his dismissal through WorkSafeBC and won by alleging he had been fired for raising safety issues. But, BC Ferries appealed that decision with the Worker's Compensation tribunal and won. It successfully argued that Henthorne failed to accept ultimate responsibility and accountability as an on-duty manager for the workplace accident.

Picking up the pieces

Recovering from being fired by BC Ferries proved difficult for Henthorne. He said the circumstances of his dismissal and a struggling industry meant job opportunities were scarce.

The former captain ended up looking for jobs that were unskilled and outside his profession. When he did get back into his chosen field, it was starting much further down the professional ladder. He said it was difficult to make ends meet.

"It was a rough few years. It was one step at a time for us as a family to go through that and a bit of a roller-coaster ride," Henthorne said.

"There were times when I thought I had it made, then realized I didn't have it made. Trying to sleep at night wasn't easy."

In 2012, more than six years after the Queen of the North disaster, Henthorne was able to find a job that satisfied him professionally. He was hired as a rescue co-ordinator with the Canadian Coast Guard's Rescue Centre in Victoria, a position he still holds today.

Thinking about it every day

Henthorne says he still thinks about the sinking of the Queen of the North on a daily basis. It plays a prominent role in his life and he expects that to continue moving forward. 

But despite the painfully vivid memories, he says the experience has allowed him to change his outlook on life.

"I'm a little more appreciative and able to take joy in everything that's in our world," he said, "I go outside and I look at the sky and the stars and the world around me and I just feel fantastic.

"I feel triumphant, I want to celebrate, I feel joyful, in a way that there's more to it than there was before."

Henthorne knows that the incident will haunt him for the rest of his life, so he has changed his focus to dealing with the memories in as positive a manner as possible.

"The incident is going to be part of my life for the rest of my life. I think that's inevitable, there's nothing I can do to change that," Henthorne said.

"My responsibility is how I respond to it. I can sulk about it, I can sit around and fume about it or whatever, that's not going to help," he adds. "It's kind of my job now; I have to make this thing the positive that I want it to be."