British Columbia·In Depth

Fatal Queen of the North sinking made BC Ferries safer, says CEO

A decade after the Queen of the North sank, the ferry's navigator is still in prison, and BC Ferries says the "darkest day" transformed the company into a safety leader

CEO Mike Corrigan says BC Ferries has learned from 'the darkest day in BC Ferries' history'

Ten years after it sank, the Queen of the North remains at the bottom of Wright Sound. ((Transportation Safety Board))

"It was terrifying."

Ten years ago Tuesday, Trina Benedict was asleep in her ferry cabin with her six-year-old daughter when the Queen of the North ran aground near Gil Island off British Columbia's Central Coast, listed, and started to sink with 101 passengers and crew on board.

 "I remember pinching myself, thinking this can't be happening," Benedict recalled in an interview with CBC several years after the tragedy. "Ferries don't sink. This doesn't really happen."

After the ferry ran aground, Benedict's cabin door jammed and she was trapped. "I said," Help me, help me! I'm stuck in cabin 35."

"I  just remember thinking, I'm not going to die in this cabin tonight with my six-year-old daughter."

I'm not going to die tonight in my cabin with my 6 year old daughter...- Queen of the North survivor

Helped out by BC Ferries crew members and by rescuers in fishing boats from the Hartley Bay First Nation, Benedict and her daughter did make it out alive, along with 97 other passengers and crew.

No commemoration planned

Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, were never seen again and are presumed to have gone down with the ferry and drowned.

The bodies of ferry passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were never found. (Family photo)

Speaking on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the tragedy, BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan calls it "the darkest day in BC Ferries' history. We did lose two passengers on board that vessel." 

No formal ceremony is planned to mark the tragic anniversary.

"We'll just remember it quietly today.  We'll never forget it, that's for sure," said Corrigan, who says he'll be thinking of Foisy and Rosette today.

Sentenced to four years in prison

Karl Lilgert might also be reflecting on the tragedy today, from his prison cell.

Lilgert was navigating on the bridge the night the Queen of the North sank. 

Evidence at his lengthy 2013 trial showed Lilgert failed to make a critical turn in the middle of the night.

Former BC Ferries navigation officer Karl Lilgert was convicted of two charges of criminal negligence causing death.

The B.C. Supreme Court heard Lilgert was likely distracted by the presence of his former lover, quartermaster Karen Briker, who was the only other person on the bridge with him in the minutes before the ship hit the rocks.

Lilgert testified in his own defence, telling the jury he was busy navigating the ship and ordering course changes and was challenged by rough weather and unreliable equipment.

But B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein​ ruled that it was clear Lilgert's relationship with Briker was a factor in the sinking, and in delivering the sentence, said the "egregious" nature of the crime called for a strong sentence, as it was not an accident or lapse in judgment.

Lilgert was convicted of criminal negligence causing death and is still serving a four-year prison sentence.

"He's holding up quite well," says Lilgert's lawyer, Glen Orris.

"He's still dealing with the trauma of what happened and what he's responsible for.  Those are tragedies in his life. Of course, people who lost family members are obviously worse off than he is." 

The Queen of the North ferry ran aground and sank off B.C.'s central coast on March 22, 2006. (Courtesy B.C. Ferries )

Although Lilgert pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence, "Karl has always taken full responsibility for what happened 10 years ago," said Orris. 

"He was responsible for navigation of the ship. It was his responsibility. That's always been his responsibility."

Orris says Lilgert made "errors in judgement," but says BC Ferries' "inferior equipment and staffing" also contributed to the tragedy.

New safety measures

BC Ferries CEO Mike Corrigan says the tragedy was a wake-up call for the provincially-owned corporation, which prompted major safety upgrades.

A lifejacket from the Queen of the North ferry floats in the waters of Wright Sound near Hartley Bay, B.C., on March 22, 2006. (The Canadian Press)

New safety measures include simulator training for crew, the addition of senior officers on night watch, new rules for crew behaviour on the bridge, new heavy weather policies, the use of two navigators at all times on northern routes, and a 24/7 incident centre.

"We're a safety leader recognized worldwide," Corrigan said. "We took the darkest day in our history, and we turned it into something positive."


Betsy Trumpener

Reporter-Editor, CBC News

Betsy Trumpener has won numerous journalism awards, including a national network award for radio documentary and the Adrienne Clarkson Diversity Award. Based in Prince George, B.C., Betsy has reported on everything from hip hop in Tanzania to B.C.'s energy industry and the Paralympics.

With files from George Baker and Daybreak North