Tale of woman trapped in sinking ferry

Lynn Cloutier was asleep in her cabin on the second deck of the Queen of the North passenger ferry when she was rattled awake by a sound loud enough to penetrate her earplugs.

Cloutier, who worked as a cleaner on the ship, was still attempting to make sense of what was happening, had the ferry reached its next destination and crashed into the dock?  When the vessel shifted again. And then again.

Water was already gathering on the floor of her cabin as a large steel clothing locker tipped over, blocking the door.

She was trapped.

"It was a double-steel locker full of clothes, and already by that time I had water up to my knees," Cloutier, speaking through tears, testified Tuesday at the criminal negligence trial of the ship's navigating officer.

"Everything shut down. There was no lights and no noise. All I could hear is water running, but I didn't know where it was coming from."

The ferry had struck Gil Island off British Columbia's northern coast. Several floors up was Karl Lilgert, the ship's fourth officer who is now on trial for criminal negligence causing the deaths of passengers Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who haven't been seen since the sinking on March 22, 2006.

But on the second deck, where the ferry's crew slept when they were not on duty, Cloutier was alone in a tiny room with frigid sea water swirling around her.

Soon after the collision, Cloutier said she heard another crew member banging on her door, but she was too cold and panicked to respond.

The crew member left, and Cloutier assumed help was on the way.

"I got tired, and I just sat on my bed with my wet blankets and prayed," recalled Cloutier, one of several crew members to offer dramatic first-hand accounts on Tuesday as the trial entered its fourth week of testimony.

"I was asking my husband to help me but he couldn't be there."

The water continued to pour in, ripping a hole in one of the walls and filling the room even faster.

"And a flash came," said Cloutier.

"I had a picture of my grandkids somewhere in the bedroom, and they said, 'Grandma, get out, we need you.' I decided, 'I guess nobody's coming and if I don't try, I'm not getting out.'"

With the water now approaching her head, Cloutier crouched under the locker and pushed, she said. She paused for a breath and then pushed again.

The locker straightened out, standing upright as Cloutier's belongings floated around her. It was still blocking the door, but she was able to keep pushing it far enough out of the way

"I opened the door and thank God it opened," she said.

"There was more in the hallway, water came rushing in. It was like waves and the water was very cold."

Cloutier, still in her pyjamas, made her way down the hall to a stairwell, where another crew member spotted her, she said.

She was safe.

It was the last shift she ever worked. Cloutier has since left BC Ferries.

As Cloutier slept, engineer Roger Tew was in the ship's engineering room. From where he sat, the same bang that woke up Cloutier made a hollow, almost musical sound — the ring of something hard slamming against metal.

The ship tilted from side to side, Tew testified, before another, more devastating sound filled the ship's engine room: the loud crunch of rock ripping into steel.

"There was a ring on the hull like hitting a gong," said Tew, the ship's second engineer.

"It (the ferry) rolled back before it came upright. It landed on the bottom and started to buck and jump quite violently. ... I figure we were grinding along the bottom for about nine seconds, and I could feel every frame being cut on that ship."

Tew, an experienced marine engineer who has since retired from BC Ferries, said water filled nearby compartments almost immediately after the collision and it quickly reached the engine room.

Within 90 seconds, he and another crew member were standing in roughly a metre of water, attempting to shut a pair of watertight doors on opposite sides of the engine room, he said.

The room was about the same size of the large courtroom he was testifying in on Tuesday, Tew said.

The pair managed to close one of the doors, but the water prevented them from reaching the other, which had been blocked by a refrigerator, he told the court.

With water pouring in and no way to stop it, Tew and the other crew member headed for the upper decks.

"On the way up the stairs, the ship now had a pretty good list," he said, "so we're walking up the stairs at an angle."

Tew left his engineering duties below deck and was now assisting with the rescue, helping other crew muster passengers and prepare life rafts.

Eventually, Tew said he found himself on a life raft with several other crew members and a fisherman who happened to be on the ferry and volunteered to assist in the evacuation. A powered inflatable boat — known as the shepherd boat — was towing them to the other life rafts, which were all linked together.

He looked back at the Queen of the North as it continued to slip into the water.

The trial has already heard Lilgert was on the bridge with quartermaster Karen Bricker, his former lover, when the ship missed a critical course alteration and sailed toward Gil Island. It was their first time working alone together since their affair ended.

Bricker's role would have been to physically steer the ship or, if the ferry was on autopilot, to keep a lookout from the bridge.

Bricker is expected to testify later in the trial.

Lilgert pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death. His trial, before a jury, is expected to last up to six months.

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