VANCOUVER - The order to switch to manual steering came about the same time Karen Briker first noticed treetops outside a window where there should have only been water.
The Queen of the North passenger ferry and its 101 passengers and crew were quickly approaching Gil Island, a remote mass of land off British Columbia's northern coast that would soon be ripping into the ship's hull.
Navigating officer Karl Lilgert shouted at Briker, his former lover, to switch off the autopilot so he could take the wheel and turn the ship, Briker told Lilgert's criminal negligence trial, but it was no use. Briker, who only became a deckhand the previous year and hadn't been on the Queen of the North's bridge since then, did not know how to operate the switch.
It caused a delay of just a few seconds, but Briker later blamed herself for the collision and subsequent sinking. As it turns out, she didn't know how to operate the switch because she was never trained, she testified during Lilgert's trial in B.C. Supreme Court. The ship's procedures never contemplated deckhands flipping the switch themselves.
"You felt — and I suggest wrongly — that the delay may have resulted in the accident?," asked Glen Orris, Lilgert's lawyer.
"Yes," replied Briker, 47, during her second day of testimony.
"But you had never been shown or told how to do that?" Orris continued. "As a quartermaster, you were never required to switch the autopilot to manual?"
"Correct," replied Briker.
Lilgert switched the autopilot himself as Briker left to get the ship's captain. At some point after that — it's not exactly clear how long after — the ship struck the island.
The ferry eventually sank, leaving two passengers unaccounted for and Lilgert charged with criminal negligence causing their deaths.
The ship left Prince Rupert on the evening of March 21, 2006, and crashed into Gil Island shortly after midnight, after missing a scheduled course alteration four hours into its journey toward Vancouver Island.
Lilgert and Briker were on the bridge. The pair were former lovers, with Briker having only ended their affair earlier that month, and they were working alone together for the first time since the breakup.
Questions about just what happened on the bridge have lingered since the sinking, and Briker offered the jury her own first-hand account.
She said everything appeared normal until Lilgert ordered a significant course alteration on the autopilot system. Once the trees appeared, Lilgert ordered Briker to switch off the autopilot.
The ferry had recently returned from upgrades, including changes to its autopilot system, and the sailing was Briker's first time working on the bridge of that ship in almost a year.
Briker was a casual employee and said she only received about half an hour of training on the old autopilot system the previous year.
Even then, a quartermaster's job is to plug headings into the autopilot system, not turn it on and off.
The procedures in place at the time saw the quartermaster at the wheel while the officer on the bridge changed the autopilot setting, ensuring there would be someone on the wheel when it was switched to manual steering.
Lilgert's defence lawyers have highlighted poor training and inadequate staffing policies as factors in the crash. They have also noted that BC Ferries, the former Crown corporation that operates the province's ferry service, now requires at least three crew members on a ferry's bridge at all times.
The Crown alleges Lilgert was negligent when he missed the turn and then failed to take evasive action to avoid the island.
Prosecutors have also focused on the affair between Lilgert and Briker, but have not yet said how the relationship fits into their case.
Briker repeatedly insisted there was no animosity between the two and instead suggested both she and Lilgert agreed it was time to end the affair. Briker had a common-law spouse and Lilgert was married, Briker said.
The sinking prompted residents from the tiny First Nations community of Hartley Bay to rush to the scene on their fishing boats and assist in the rescue.
Other nearby fishing vessels and a coast guard ship also responded.
In the end, 99 passengers and crew members were saved. Two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were never seen again and presumed drown.
Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death. His trial, which began at the end of January, is expected to last a total of six months.
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