Ferry safety report incomplete, disturbing

  • Mar. 19, 2008 3:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinftret–The Transportation Safety Board’s long-awaited report into what caused the Queen of the North to sink two years ago has painted a disturbing yet incomplete picture of what happened the night of the incident. The TSB found that there was no unusual weather on the QN’s route out of Prince Rupert down the Inside Passage, beyond a slight squall, which might have temporarily distracted the bridge crew. There was no equipment or mechanical failure – just a crew member who forgot to order a routine course correction, and didn’t notice the oversight until the ferry was about to crash into Gil Island, 14 minutes later. Two passengers died; the remaining 57 passengers and 42 crew members were safely evacuated into lifeboats and rescued by residents of nearby Hartley Bay. Haida Nation vice-president Arnie Bellis said he was disappointed in the safety board’s report, calling it “smoke and mirrors.” “I think they need to get to the real bottom of this thing,” he said. “Let’s not forget, there are two people who passed away. There has to be a bit better effort to clarify what happened.” Mr. Bellis said he knows islanders who don’t feel comfortable travelling by ferry since the sinking, and he doesn’t think the report will do much to reassure them. Queen Charlotte mayor Carol Kulesha said she too was disappointed in the report, but is satisfied with the changes BC Ferries has made since the sinking. “I am quite disappointed, as is everyone I speak with, that we do not know what happened in those missing minutes on the bridge,” she said. “I am disappointed that we do not know exactly what occurred and we still are waiting for answers.” The safety board report makes several recommendations, most of which BC Ferries is already implementing, including a new reservations check-in policy for the northern routes that ensures an accurate list of all passengers. BC Ferries president David Hahn said the company has also added two more navigational officers to each watch on the northern vessels, exceeding Transport Canada requirements; implemented a new alcohol and drug policy; instituted new training programs for masters, deck officers and senior engineers; and is putting voyage data recorders on all its vessels. Ms Kulesha sits on a BC Ferries stakeholders committee for the north coast, and said the company had kept the committee well informed about how it was dealing with the accident. She said the BC Ferries employees she knows were all horrified by the sinking and want to do everything they can to make sure it never happens again. North Coast MLA Gary Coons, the NDP’s critic for Ferries, called for a public inquiry the day the ferry sank and was still calling for one last week, after reading the safety board’s report. Mr. Coons said the report points to mismanagement at BC Ferries, and inadequate training and staffing levels. “There needs to be an inquiry into the failure of the management of BC Ferries to adequately train the crew and to ensure that safety procedures required by the Canada Shipping Act were fully implemented,” Mr. Coons said. “Since public oversight of the company was removed, we’ve had several troubling accidents and the loss of two lives. This needs to be investigated.” The residents of Hartley Bay, who receive scant attention in the report, were praised by Mr. Coons for their heroism. Hartley Bay is still coping with pollution from the sinking, which is tainting the community’s marine food resources, he said, and BC Ferries should be doing more to compensate them. Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Nathan Cullen joined Mr. Coons in calling for a public inquiry in the wake of the Transportation Safety Board report, saying Canada needs to compare its safety standards for ferries to those in the rest of the world. “An investigation into what happened and why is necessary for the passengers and their families for closure,” Mr. Cullen said. “They have waited two years and the TSB report falls woefully short. A public inquiry is the only way to address the significant concerns and serious questions the families have.”