Ferry passenger believes she saw couple before crash, thinks they went overboard

VANCOUVER – A passenger from the Queen of the North ferry’s final voyage says she might have seen a missing couple on an outside deck just before the ship hit an island off northern British Columbia – and she told a jury Wednesday she believes they could have fallen overboard.

Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette haven’t been seen since the ferry collided with Gil Island and sank in the early morning of March 22, 2006. The ship’s fourth officer, Karl Lilgert, is on trial for criminal negligence causing their deaths.

Jill Lawrence, who was travelling with her spouse to visit her sick father on Vancouver Island, recalled stepping onto an outside deck on the back of the ship to have a cigarette just before midnight.

She noticed a middle-aged couple leaning against the outer wall of the ferry, standing in a quiet embrace and not talking.

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Lawrence said when she returned to her cabin, the couple remained outside. About 15 minutes later, she was jolted in her bed as the ship ran aground.

“I believe (the couple outside) was them, because I never saw those people again,” Lawrence, wiping her eyes with a tissue, testified in B.C. Supreme Court.

“I just believe that because of the way the ship was listing, they could have fallen overboard.”

Just what exactly happened to Foisy and Rosette has been one of the lingering mysteries of the sinking, and the jury has yet to hear a concrete theory about why they vanished.

Did they make it off the ferry in the nighttime evacuation that followed the collision? If not, why were they the only two passengers who didn’t heed the alarms and warnings to abandon ship?

Lawrence acknowledged she did not get a good look at the couple on the ferry’s outer deck, and when family members showed her a photo of Foisy and Rosette shortly after the sinking, she said she hadn’t seen them.

But Lawrence has seen more photos since. She said the woman she saw outside had a similar build to Rosette, and the couple on the ferry looked to be about the same age.

“I just believe it was them,” she said.

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For a conviction, the Crown must prove, among many other things, that Foisy and Rosette are dead.

Lilgert’s lawyers have pointed to several witnesses who said they may have seen the missing couple in Hartley Bay, the small First Nations community where many of the survivors were taken.

For the most part, the details of those sightings have been vague and witnesses have acknowledged they weren’t sure what they saw.

On Wednesday, the Crown offered a possible explanation, suggesting at least one sighting was actually related to another passenger who bears a resemblance to Foisy.

Passenger Sean Kavanaugh, an American who was with his girlfriend returning from a trip to the Haida Gwaii islands, said he had dinner with Foisy and Rosette the evening the ferry left Prince Rupert. He later told rescue officials he may have seen the couple in Hartley Bay.

Seven years later, Kavanaugh said he doesn’t believe the people he saw were actually the missing couple. He stressed that his initial account was based on seeing one or two people from six metres away, and only briefly.

During his testimony, he was handed a photograph of another passenger, Lawrence Papineau, who testified a day earlier.

In the photo, taken in Hartley Bay, Papineau has a goatee and is wearing a baseball cap.

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Kavanaugh agreed Papineau looks similar to Foisy, who also had facial hair and may have been wearing a baseball cap, though he wasn’t directly asked whether it was Papineau, not Foisy, he spotted in Hartley Bay.

“In facial structure, they’re similar,” Kavanaugh said, examining the photo of Papineau.

“On fine detail, no, but in basic facial structure, he has the same basic facial width.”

In the end, 99 passengers and crew were accounted for. Foisy and Rosette have long been presumed drowned.

The Crown alleges Lilgert caused their deaths because, as navigating officer, he missed a scheduled course alteration and sailed the ship into an island.

The defence has argued poor weather, faulty equipment and inadequate training were to blame. They’ve also suggested Lilgert was off course because he was attempting to steer clear of a fishing boat.

Lilgert has pleaded not guilty to two counts of criminal negligence causing death.

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