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Unclear whether anyone checked cabin of missing couple, court hears

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VANCOUVER - The chief steward of the Queen of the North, whose staff was tasked with ensuring no one was left behind as the ferry sank off the northern coast of British Columbia, told a jury Thursday she doesn't know if anyone searched the area where two missing passengers were believed to be staying.

The trial for Karl Lilgert, an officer charged with criminal negligence causing death, has already heard from several crew members who searched various parts of the ship, but none who looked in the cabins on the starboard — or right — side of the ship's seventh deck.

That's where a room was reserved for Gerald Foisy and Shirley Rosette, who haven't been seen since the sinking.

Chief steward Carol Wendschuh couldn't say who searched the cabins in that area, if anyone at all.

"Had any crew member reported to you that they had cleared Deck 7?" asked Crown counsel Dianne Wiedemann.

"No they hadn't," replied Wendschuh.

The ship struck an island shortly after midnight on March 22, 2006, prompting a frantic nighttime evacuation.

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

It's unclear what happened to them — specifically, if they didn't make it off the ship, how it was possible that two people were left behind.

The trial has heard that crew members set to work almost immediately after the ship's collision with the island.

Wendschuh said she and another crew member grabbed master keys and started searching cabins on the sixth deck. She could hear two crew members searching the other side of that deck, she said.

Another, George Kozak, ended up on Deck 7, but he testified earlier this week that he only searched the port — or left — side, believing someone else would be searching the other side. He also believed the entire deck would be searched a second time once he was finished, he said.

Yet another witness said he checked one room on Deck 7, but believed someone else was checking the rest of that deck.

There were other problems, as well.

Crew members searching cabins are supposed to use chalk to mark an X on the doors of empty rooms, but the ship did not have any chalk that night.

At least one of the crew members specifically assigned to search passenger cabins did not.

Joanne Pierce, one of the ship’s second stewards, testified she was on her way to Deck 7 when she was stopped by another crew member, who told her all the cabins had been checked. She couldn't recall who that was.

Trial testimony hasn't confirmed Foisy and Rosette were in the cabin.

A room was assigned to them by BC Ferries' reservation system, but Wendschuh said it wasn't uncommon for room assignments to change as passengers checked in. Those changes are tracked on a log sheet that went down with the ship.

Members of the First Nations community of Hartley Bay heard the distress calls over the radio, and were in their boats and rushing to the scene as the evacuation progressed.

Most of the passengers and some crew were transported to the community, where they were greeted with blankets, food and hot drinks. About three dozen survivors, mostly crew, were taken to a nearby coast guard ship.

Ernie Westgarth, who was Hartley Bay's housing co-ordinator, helped prepare the community centre for survivors. At some point after most survivors had arrived, Westgarth said a boat arrived carrying members of the crew.

Among them, he recognized Karen Briker, who attended the same grade school as Westgarth many years earlier. Briker, a quartermaster, had been on the bridge alone with Lilgert, her former lover, when the ship collided with the island.

"She wasn't acting like them — she was crying, she was shaking," said Westgarth.

"She was pretty shook up."

Westgarth drove her on an ATV to a waiting coast guard helicopter, which transported Briker, Lilgert and other crew members to Prince Rupert. Briker hugged Westgarth as he dropped her off, he testified.

The Crown alleges Lilgert was negligent when, as navigating officer, he missed a scheduled course alteration and sailed the ship into Gil 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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