Ten years on from the sinking of BC Ferries' Queen of the North – an accident off of the coast of Gil Island that claimed the lives of two passengers – uncertainty still surrounds the tragic event. The subsequent inquiries and court cases sent navigating officer Karl Lilgert to prison for criminal negligence and left ship captain Colin Henthorne without a job, but we may never know how passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette were missed on the final count of the evacuation.
Henthorne explains as much as he can in his book The Queen of the North Disaster: The Captain's Story, a tome that looks at the details of the sinking. Offering personal insight into what happened on March 22, 2006, the informational memoirs were prepared to dispel rumours, so that the author wouldn't "be living in the shadow of everything else that's written about it."
"Every person that I have talked to about the sinking, right from the time that it happened, had questions. People still have questions. People who have read my whole book still have questions." Henthorne tells Westender over the phone.
What's for certain is that the Queen of the North struck an underwater ledge south of Prince Rupert just after midnight, while Lilgert had been tasked with navigating the ship. Henthorne was off-duty at the time, but the impact shook him into a state of alert.
"I was awakened by someone pounding on my door, screaming at me to get up and get to the wheelhouse straight away – desperate shouting," he remembers. "Before I was even half-dressed, the ship hit the ground with a terrific impact. I compare it in the book to my experiences when I sailed on icebreakers; you're bashing and banging, and the ship is titling from side to side."
The disaster took hold quickly, with the crew evacuating the Queen before it sank into the murky depths of Wright Sound not much more than an hour after the accident. While the ship's crew worked dutifully to get people on safety rafts – "the crew did not get enough credit for what they had done," Henthorne says – they'd find out by the late morning that two passengers did not make it out with everyone else. Headcounts at the time placed were listed at 101 passengers, but were later confirmed at 99. After being presumed drowned, Foisy and Rosette were ultimately pronounced dead one year later.
In addition to the initial tragedy, Henthorne's book also covers lengthy court undertakings, from passengers' personal lawsuits against the captain, to a battle between he and BC Ferries that resulted in his termination, being reinstated following a complaint, and being fired again following an appeal from the company. "They got quite nasty throughout all that," he remembers, adding how BC Ferries took umbrage with his answers regarding safety precautions. " They were bad-mouthing me. It went from abandoning me to actually attacking me."
While having moved on to become a rescue coordinator for the Canadian Coast Guard, the sinking of the Queen of the North has stayed with Henthorne. Documenting his side of the story was a chance to heal and move on, while also honouring the fallen and acknowledging a dark chapter of BC Ferries' history that won't soon be forgotten.
"I kept waking up at the same time every night, around the time that the grounding occurred. Just after midnight I'd wake up and wouldn't be able to get back to sleep," Henthorne recalls. "Someone once said it's like a physical wound – it'll heal. You'll get a scar, and it'll be a pretty big scar, but as time goes by, it starts to get smaller and smaller. But it is always there."
Henthorne will be holding his first public Q&A and reading of the book in Vancouver at the Main Street location of the Book Warehouse (4118 Main St.) next Wednesday, March 1.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story contained the wrong address for Book Warehouse. This has been corrected.