The basic facts of the Queen of the North disaster are seemingly straightforward. But a book by Colin Henthorne, the captain of the ill-fated ship, entitled The Queen of the North Disaster has, for the first time, given him an opportunity to tell his side of the story.
“I have had this and continue to have this hanging over my head…and I never know when I talk to anyone how they’re going to respond to me. I have gotten an enormous amount of unwavering support from my family, and from many others who have been hugely supportive of me over the years,” said Henthorne. “But I’ve also seen some of the worst parts of human nature.”
It was just before midnight on March 22, 2006 when Henthorne was woken by frantic crew members who reported the ship to be in peril. Moments later the ship, on its way to Port Hardy, struck ground at Gil Island and sustained damages which would sink the vessel about an hour later.
There were 101 persons aboard — 59 passengers and 42 crew. By daylight, it was known that two passengers, Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, had gone missing and would never be found.
Blame for the disaster would fall on fourth mate, Karl Lilgert, who, it was alleged, failed to make necessary course changes as the ship exited Grenville Channel, resulting in the fatal grounding. Lilgert was tried for criminal negligence causing death and, in 2013 found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison.
Quartermaster Karen Briker, who was on the bridge at the time of the grounding, was fired, as was Henthorne.
But the story took a series of twists when it was alleged Briker and Lilgert had been previously engaged in a love affair. Ungrounded, and what Henthorne described as idiotic speculation hinted at inappropriate relations on the bridge, distracting the two from their duties.
Further questions were raised about how two passengers could be lost, and why the head counts performed during the evacuation that night were inconsistent and inaccurate.
Henthorne’s account of the disaster speaks to questions of the relationship he had with the crew, and whether his level of discipline was adequate. At the time of the inquiries, he had been accused of being both too stern and too relaxed with the crew.
He also examines the reasons behind the loss of life and the inconsistent head counts reported on that night, and while he can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong, he references a number of safety concerns he claims to have raised with B.C. Ferries prior to the sinking that night. Some of these concerns, he said, came into play that night.
He also discusses at length the level of initial support and then the startling withdrawal of that support by B.C. Ferries and the anger and frustration arising from the corporation’s actions after the disaster.
And then there was the question of whether the new navigational equipment, installed only a month before the event, played a role in the disaster.
It’s been 10 years, and for a good portion of that time Henthorne has been working to put his life back together and trying to address some of the outlandish speculation about what happened that night. His treatment by B.C. Ferries, his legal battles with the corporation, and the sometimes difficult quest to regain his reputation and employment are all chronicled in his book that sheds a new light on what has become a legendary event in B.C. maritime history.
Henthorne said the book has helped him put his story in perspective, and has allowed him to tell the story from his own perspective. But he stops short of characterizing it as a mechanism to achieve closure.
“What is closure?” he asked. “I have to live my life and that event is part of my past. But I also have to deal with the present and plan for the future. I will not let my whole life be defined by that one event.”
Beyond his writing, Henthorne is employed by the Canadian Coast Guard as a rescue coordinator for air and sea rescue in B.C. and the Yukon.
Henthorne’s book The Queen of the North Disaster can be found at local stores, Bolen Books and online.