Ex-lover tells ferry sinking trial she didn't know how to get ship off autopilot

VANCOUVER - As the Queen of the North passenger ferry sailed on a collision course with a remote island off British Columbia's northern coast, Karen Briker found herself alone in the ship's wheelhouse with her former lover, navigating officer Karl Lilgert.

Several weeks earlier, Briker ended her six-month affair with Lilgert after deciding to stay with her common-law spouse, and they were now working alone together for the first time since the relationship ended.

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But Briker, who testified Monday at Lilgert's criminal negligence trial, said nothing of any consequence happened in the roughly half an hour they spent alone together before the ferry collided with an island.

They didn't fight. They didn't touch. They barely even spoke.

"Was there any physical contact at all between you and Mr. Lilgert on the bridge that evening?" Crown counsel Mike Huot asked Briker in B.C. Supreme Court.

"No," replied Briker, 47, speaking through tears.

"Was there any argument that distracted you or him from your duties?" asked Huot.

"No," replied Briker.

Lilgert had recently found out Briker had purchased a home with her common-law spouse. Lilgert asked her about the house while on the bridge, but the discussion was brief and calm, said Briker.

"That was about it for conversation," she said.

Lilgert was the officer in charge of navigation when the ferry missed a scheduled course alteration shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, and sailed into Gil Island. He is on trial for criminal negligence causing the deaths of two passengers.

Briker, a deckhand, was in the role of quartermaster at the time, and with the ship on autopilot, her role was to look out for any hazards outside. She also testified that she didn't know how to take the ship off autopilot as it approached the island.

The two had known each other for many years, having first met around the time Briker starting working at BC Ferries at the age of 19, she said.

The affair started in the fall of 2005, and she later told police it began at a time when she was unsatisfied with her spouse. Lilgert also had a spouse at the time.

Briker's spouse in Prince Rupert caught wind of the affair near Christmas of that year and left, she said. He returned in January to discuss getting back together — if Briker ended her relationship with Lilgert.

Briker told her spouse the affair was over, but she acknowledged in court that it continued for another two months, when another BC Ferries employee informed the spouse Briker and Lilgert were still involved.

Briker then decided it was finally time to end it, she said.

She met Lilgert in Prince Rupert at the beginning of March to tell him the news, which she said he appeared to take well.

"He seemed fine with that," said Briker. "He, too, wanted to work on his relationship. It seemed neither one of us had any hard feelings."

Briker entered the courthouse Monday morning with tears running down her face.

As she entered a crowded courtroom, Lilgert sat at a table with his lawyer while rifling through a backpack, not looking at Briker. He watched as she testified, occasionally writing on a notepad.

Details of their affair have been laid bare at the trial, but Crown prosecutors have yet to say exactly how the relationship fits into their theory about what happened that night.

The defence has insisted the affair was entirely unrelated to the sinking. Still, they have previously said Briker and Lilgert were in love and had discussed having children together.

On Monday, Briker laughed at the suggestion she had discussed children with Lilgert and corrected a Crown lawyer who described the relationship as "romantic."

"I'd prefer to call it a sexual relationship," she said.

Briker said she and Lilgert have spoken several times since the sinking, and she repeatedly insisted they have never discussed what happened or why the ship struck an island.

In some instances, she said she simply didn't remember what they talked about.

On the night of the sinking, Briker said everything appeared normal as she started her one-hour shift on the bridge.

The ship was on autopilot, and at some point, Lilgert ordered Briker to enter a large course correction into the system, she said.

It was a substantial turn, which Briker thought was unusual, but Lilgert repeated the order.

Before she could make the change, Briker saw trees through a window that were illuminated by the ferry's lights.

"I then remember hearing him say something like, 'Oh my God,' or, 'Oh no,'" said Briker.

"He then ordered me to turn off the autopilot and I told him that I didn't know how."

The ship had recently returned from scheduled upgrades, including changes to its autopilot system. Briker was a casual employee, and she had said she hadn't worked on the bridge of that ship for nearly a year, she said.

Briker said Lilgert switched the autopilot system off himself and turned the wheel, though she said she didn't feel the ship move. She then left to get the ship's captain.

Shortly after, Briker said she overheard Lilgert speaking with another officer.

"I heard him say, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I was trying to go around a fishing boat. We hit a squall and the radar screen had whited out,'" recalled Briker.

As the subsequent evacuation progressed, Briker boarded a life raft with other evacuees and was soon floating in the water, overcome with guilt.

"I was afraid if anybody had figured out where I had come from, because I felt that maybe because I didn't know how to turn the autopilot off, that I had caused the accident," she said.

The Crown says Lilgert was negligent when he missed a scheduled alteration correction and then failed to steer the ship away from Gil Island.

The defence says poor training, unreliable equipment, bad weather and inadequate staffing policies on the ferry.

The sinking set off a dramatic nighttime rescue, which saw residents from the tiny First Nations community of Hartley Bay head to the scene in their fishing boats.

The evacuation and rescue saved 99 passengers and crew, but 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 is expected to last until late spring or early summer.

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