Captain tells story behind Queen of the North sinking

Moments before the Queen of the North struck ground in a marine disaster that would claim two lives, Colin Henthorne woke up to banging on his cabin door.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been roused from sleep to help with a problem, as master of the ship, but this time was different. The calling and knocking were frantic. Henthorne moved quickly, with certainty that — whatever was going on — he would sort it out. But before he was fully dressed, the ship hit ground, hard.

“I knew what it was right away, there was no mistaking it. It pounded repeatedly on the ground and I had this vision in my mind of the ship sweeping along the shore of the island, branches sweeping along the ship and the pounding of that. I knew it was serious and I knew I’d be in for a long night. I knew that much,” he said.

“I didn’t know we were sinking, yet.”

What followed would be an evacuation with fluctuating head counts, a series of lawsuits and lasting impacts for the 59 passengers, 42 crew and their families.

Ninety-nine people would be saved; passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette would never be found. Blame would fall on Karl Lilgert, who in 2013 was convicted of criminal negligence causing death. The quartermaster, second officer and Henthorne would also lose their jobs.

Henthorne is telling his version of events for the first time, more than 10 years after he watched the Queen of the North — a ship he considered more of a home than any house he’d lived in — dip to a vertical position and sink below the surface.

In his new book, The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain’s Story, he addresses questions that are still being asked about the March 22, 2006, catastrophe. How did two passengers go missing? How could a ship that sailed the same course hundreds of times go off course? What really could have happened on the bridge that night?

And should the captain go down with the ship?

“I’d like them to hear my story,” Henthorne said.

“Most of what’s out there is other people’s stories — the company’s stories or versions from authorities or armchair sailors throwing ideas around. I just want my story to be out there, too.” For a long time after the sinking, Henthorne woke up around 12:30 a.m. every night — about the same time he was awakened on the ship. He’d feel panic until he sat up. With difficulty getting back to sleep, he started going to bed at 7:30 p.m. to get enough rest. Finally, he underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, which helped.

Henthorne still seems like a captain, speaking with a deep, authoritative voice and a strong sense of duty, when he talks about what went wrong in the wake of the disaster. He’s enjoying his new career with the Canadian Coast Guard, but over an omelette at a café near his home in North Saanich, he talks about ways he’d tried to make his ships safer on B.C. Ferries.

His book is peppered with safety concerns, some of which he says he raised with B.C. Ferries before the disaster occurred and some that came into play on the night. Among the larger ones are those about the ship’s navigation system and the eroding authority of ships’ masters to make decisions for the crew and vessel. The smaller, more specific ones, he had tried to fill himself: The evacuation checklist used that night was one he created himself.

The evacuation wasn’t perfect, as none are. But any errors were systemic, Henthorne says: His crew did the best they could under the circumstances.

“During drills, I’d always say: ‘The only reason we do this is because everything has gone wrong. Don’t expect everything will go right from this point onward,’ ” Henthorne said.

“You might get enough things right that it will save you and save the ship. In that sense, it was successful.”

Everyone has a job, in the case of an emergency. But some of the crew members were trapped or injured in the grounding. By the time they made it to the bridge, some were missing shoes or clothing. Henthorne speaks with pride in the way they never complained and rallied to evacuate the ship.

The head-count problems began early. The chalk that should have been there to mark cabin doors as they were checked went missing, as did grease pencils for marking the number of occupants on each liferaft. Numbers were written on hands and counted in heads. It came to 102, while the log book stated 101.

“I knew when I got the count it didn’t jibe with what was in the log book. But I didn’t know at that point if there had been a mistake in counting in the first place, the log book could have been wrong.”

By the time Henthorne got off the sinking vessel, he had personally done a last run through the cabin area and thought everyone was off. The head count would be repeated several times through the night and morning, with numbers changing each time. Initial reports celebrated the successful rescue of all passengers, before it was realized that two were missing.

So how do two passengers disappear?

“I don’t know. I keep going over it in my head, all the time, where they could have been on board and how they could have gotten missed or missed hearing the commotion and shouting to get out. … I just. I hate to keep saying I don’t know, but that’s the truth,” he said.

“Two-thirds had gone into the town of Hartley Bay. I thought maybe they knew somebody or befriended someone and went to their house. Maybe they were scared, maybe they were huddled down in a basement in the fetal position. Even when I saw their families show up in Prince Rupert, I still thought, they’re going to be found,” he said.

He still holds out some hope that they will be found, even if it’s dwindling.

“The more time that goes by, the less likely it seems.” The most sensational part of the public narrative centred on speculation about what happened on the bridge that night.

Investigations showed the ferry had failed to make a slight course correction while exiting Grenville Channel. Blame fell on navigator Lilgert. The Crown argued Lilgert missed the routine turn because he was distracted by his ex-lover, the quartermaster with whom he was alone on the bridge for the first time since their relationship ended. Both denied that had anything to do with the sinking, and Lilgert maintained he had changed course.

From Henthorne’s perspective, rumours that they could have been having sex on the bridge are absurd.

“Absolutely not. It’s idiotic to even think that way,” Henthorne said.

Instead, Henthorne favours Lilgert’s version of events, backing it up with explanations of conditions and technology. It’s completely plausible that the navigator was making those course corrections and lost sight of the ship’s location, while being foiled by the autopilot system and confusing controls, he said.

“I want to make clear that I don’t know what happened. What I was attempting to do was discuss other possibilities. I don’t think anybody conclusively knows what happened, other than Karl,” Henthorne said.

“And even he has to have some confusion about it or he would have prevented it.” Few people say it to Henthorne directly, but one of the regular questions his daughter gets, when someone learns her father’s role, is: Shouldn’t the captain go down with the ship?

It’s a question he dedicates a whole chapter to, listing examples of cases where a captain has not only kept his life, but been rewarded.

Henthorne says the captain’s role doesn’t end with the ship — the survivors still needed a leader after they disembarked.

In some ways, Henthorne did go down. B.C. Ferries’ attitude toward him shifted in the weeks after the accident, he says, and he believes it’s because of the safety concerns he raised.

“The day of the sinking, the president told me: Anything you need, we’re right behind you. Throughout the first few months, even after their initial inquiries when they were pretty oppositional and hostile, they still told me they supported me. In fact, he said, ‘We support you 120 per cent,” Henthorne said.

So he was surprised when he received the call firing him.

“It was apparent they just wanted me to go quietly,” Henthorne said.

First, he added, B.C. Ferries said it was because of operational requirements, but when it was pointed out that B.C. Ferries was actively recruiting new captains, it said it had lost confidence in Henthorne.

One of B.C. Ferries’ arguments was that the master is always on duty — Henthorne says B.C. Ferries gives masters all the responsibility without all of the authority. It also argued that by allowing things like music to be played on the bridge, which could be heard on radio calls between the Queen of the North and Prince Rupert, he created too relaxed a working environment. Henthorne counters with research showing music and conversation help fight fatigue. He also says he was called the “Bridge Nazi” for his strict rules.

Henthorne won an appeal through the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Tribunal, but lost subsequent appeals by B.C. Ferries.

Henthorne got his foot back in the door with part-time work on an inland ferry, for a company whose president was a Queen of the North survivor, before joining the coast guard. But he’s still affected, he says.

“I’ve had to learn a new job, take up a new career, take a big cut in income. I spent huge amounts of money on my defence and to live on, while I was unemployed,” he says.

“I get angry on a regular basis. … Something will trigger anger — I get a bill that I can’t pay or that I’ll have trouble paying — and I think, I wouldn’t have this problem. So I say, OK I’ll be angry for the next five minutes or 20 minutes, then it’ll go.” By sharing his story, he hopes to shed new light on ways the system can be improved. Despite surviving a sinking ship, he has not been consulted on the gaps that could be bridged to make it safer.

“I’d like people to be aware of things they might not know about, about the imperfections in our industry and B.C. Ferries in particular. And I hope professionals will gain something from it. You can’t solve problems if you don’t know what they are.”

Henthorne’s story is just one of 99 that came off the ship that night. He didn’t hear about what his crew members went through until after the rescue.

“It’s heartwrenching to listen to, and you learn something about human beings and what they’re capable of. I feel kind of powerless in a lot of ways; I’d like to give them the help they need,” he said.

He’s still in contact with many crew members living with posttraumatic stress disorder, he said.

“It is hard to listen to, when you’re hearing how badly their lives were changed. Because they have the same problems. Ten years after the accident, they still can’t sleep, they’re still waking up at night, they’re still having fits of anger they never used to have.

“These are my friends. So I’m always trying to think, ‘What can I do for them other than listen?’ … All of us have had to suffer, for just having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

13 Nov 2016 | Times Colonist | AMY SMART