You are here

B.C. Ferries Disaster Demonstrates Abdication of Duty

One of many reports into the tragic sinking of the Queen of the North, this one authored by the Transportation Safety Board, was released last week. It indicates that the navigational crew aboard the doomed ferry failed in executing their responsibility for the safety of the vessel and its passengers and crew.
 
The T.S.B.’s findings tell a tale of disabled safety systems, raise questions about crew training and (above all) speak of inattention on the part of the navigational crew. They reveal obliviousness to the danger into which the ship was sailing.
 
On March 22, 2006 at 12:22 a.m., the Queen of the North plowed into Gil Island at full speed.  The ship had sailed through a critical course change at Sainty Point and plowed straight on into Gil Island. After drifting for a little over an hour, the ship sank in 430 metres of water. Ninety nine passengers and crew were rescued, but two died.
 
Why did this tragedy occur? According to the T.S.B., it happened because of a total safety breakdown which included disabled systems, insufficient training, and human failure to keep a watch.
 
The T.S.B. report stated that, at the critical moments, the second officer, who was in charge of the bridge, had left two subordinate crew members in charge while he took a meal break.  Left on the bridge were the fourth officer (who was in command in the second officer’s absence) and a quartermaster. The fourth officer was responsible for giving navigational directions to the quartermaster.
 
At the critical time, the fourth officer and quartermaster were engaged in a personal discussion. Lights on the bridge were dimmed, music was playing. The ship was, apparently, on autopilot. The electronic chart system monitor displaying the ship’s course was turned off. An alarm which sounds when the vessel is off course had been previously deactivated.
 
For 14 long minutes after the Queen of the North passed the designated course change, the fourth officer and the quartermaster failed to recognize that the ship was headed for disaster. Only when it was too late did the fourth officer realize that a drastic course change was required.
 
In the wake of the tragedy, the second officer, fourth officer, and quartermaster were all fired.  The B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers’ Union filed grievances and those arbitrations will be heard in the coming months.
 
What can we make of all of this evidence and how do we assign responsibility? The reality is, as this accident demonstrates, that it takes a series of breakdowns to turn a near miss into a tragedy of this magnitude.
 
The T.S.B. characterized the working environment on the bridge as “less than formal”. It stated that “accepted principles of navigation safety were not consistently or rigorously followed” and that “unsafe navigation practices” led to a “loss of situational awareness” by the bridge crew.
 
Regardless of de-activated systems, weather conditions, and training, the human beings in control of navigating this vessel had the ultimate responsibility. Those individuals abdicated their duty by allowing their personal conversation (and, perhaps, other events) to distract them. 
 
Still to come are the results of an RCMP criminal investigation, a Transport Canada report, the outcome of a class-action civil lawsuit, and the arbitrations over the firings.  More will become known, as a result of those processes, of the details of the final fourteen minutes. 
 
They won’t change the fact that two people were responsible for the safety of ninety nine others and that those two people failed, miserably, in carrying out their duty. At least in the context of the arbitrations over the firing of the crew members, surely that will satisfy an arbitrator that B.C. Ferries had just cause for summary dismissal.
 
Robert Smithson is a partner at Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna practicing exclusively in the area of labour and employment law. For more information about his practice, log on to http://www.pushormitchell.com/.