BC Ferries

Our wheels of ‘justice’ turn slowly

MV Queen of the North is in the news again. Examination of its sinking soon enters the fifth year, with little known that was not immediately apparent. After years of judicial consideration, Karl Lilgert, the navigator on the bridge that night, is charged with criminal negligence. Captain Colin Henthorne, not charged, was discharged in 2006 by BC Ferries, but reinstated, with back pay, benefits and interest, in 2009.

By comparison, Express Samina, a similarly aged Greek ferry, sank in 2000. Within days, the captain, first mate and other officers appeared in court, charged with multiple offenses, including manslaughter. The Captain, who said he was asleep when the ship ran into difficulties, spent 16 months in jail pending trial and was eventually sentenced to 16 years. The First Mate, also imprisoned following the incident, and three other officers were convicted and jailed, as were two employees of the ship’s operator.

BC Ferries faced no open process that examined its responsibility or preparation and performance. Management declared itself blameless but imposed confidentiality agreements on victims it compensated with public funds and kept private the documents in which it admitted liability. The corporation did not account publicly for the absence of a voyage data recorder (VDR) on an old ship that regularly sailed through difficult passages and open water subject to severe weather.

Shipping authorities quote varying hull life spans, depending on encountered loads and stress levels. Tanker life is generally under 20 years. Greece now limits ferry hulls to 30 years. The Queen of the North was 37 years old, with a considerable amount of that time plying in heavy weather.

The Transportation Safety Board of the federal government reported:

. . . we were able to determine that sound watch keeping practices were not being followed. As such, a critical course change was not made and the vessel continued on its course until it struck Gil Island, suffered damage and sank.

Because we did not have a VDR, including bridge audio, we could not determine the exact circumstances leading to the missed course change. The question in many peoples’ minds was: “what happened in those final 14 minutes?” We may never be able to answer this question with finite detail or absolute certainty.

Why was no VDR system on board? The federal government requires recorders on ships moving internationally and the Transportation Safety Board believes the devices are essential to conducting successful and thorough accident investigations.

The TSB admits that operators oppose additional surveillance in their workplace. With an eye to that opposition, BC Ferries management chose not to install the vital equipment, preferring doubt to certainty in the event of liability claims. After all, an asset rich corporation can survive legal proceedings more easily than a typical citizen. Why collect evidence that may help a plaintiff?

Did the Campbell Government hold ferry managers accountable for disregarding needs of safety investigations? No, as evidenced by dramatically increased salaries and bonuses for senior management during the period in which the mishap has been under review. Of course, the ferry corporation, despite its putative private status, is an adjunct of the provincial government.

Typically, Canadian governments design review and regulation processes to be not effective and timely. Instead, they are leisurely, lucrative and protective of established order. A few dissociated souls might be censured or sacrificed eventually but unseen ramparts remain intact, keeping senior management and supervising agencies safe from reprobation.

This happens by consent of all participants. The public is told that certain events are fraught with complexities, beyond comprehension by ordinary folks and in need of lengthy examination. In practice, depth of inquiry is limited but the time frame, and of course the budgets, stay generous.

So, it takes four years in Canada to determine that only one person could be faulted for loss of two lives and a ship. In the Greek ferry tragedy, relatives of shipwreck victims and survivors expressed satisfaction with the verdicts passed down on senior crew members but said they had hoped for stricter sentences for the two members of the ferry operating firm, who received four-year sentences, and the ministry inspector, who was acquitted.

Survivor Stamatis Kotsornithis said after the Greek court verdict:

It seems to me that the sergeants were sacrificed to protect the generals, who are the real guilty parties.

What might Mr. Kotsornithis say about the Canadian process?

* * * * *
Update
British Columbia Ferry Services Inc. has won an appeal allowing it to fire Colin Henthorne, the captain of the Queen of the North the night it sank.

The Tyee learned of the previously unpublicized March 11 decision today, the same day the criminal justice branch filed charges of criminal negligence causing death against Karl Lilgert, the officer who was responsible for steering the vessel when it struck bottom near Gil Island in Wright Sound . . . con’t

Categories: BC Ferries, Justice

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