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Ferry Tragedy: Key Questions Persist

Citizens remain in the dark on issues of safety and responsibility.

Kendyl Salcito 25 May

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Sunken Queen of the North. (Courtesy: Transportation Safety Board of Canada.)

Two months after the Queen of the North sank off the coast of Hartley Bay, the press is all but silent on some major questions remaining about how the tragedy occurred, and what actions should be taken next.

Just after the March 22 sinking, a flurry of news stories captured the drama and horror experienced by passengers, as well as the bravery and generosity of local residents. Some stories addressed the age and quality of the Queen of the North, and a few mentioned the valour of crew members and the terror they endured in the ship's bowels as they awoke. But after the doomed ferry was photographed on the sea floor and the passengers -- save two -- were returned home, the reporting seems to have trickled to a stop.

Part of the reason may be that B.C. Ferries Chief David Hahn has gone quiet. A review of B.C. news reports just after the disaster shows a readily available Hahn was quoted and cited 10 times more frequently than any other source. Observers say Hahn conducted a skilled PR campaign, reinforcing notions that the fleet was safe, the passengers were well cared for, and the proper changes would be made.

And yet these key questions remain:

Question #1: Who was counting passengers?

At 5:00 a.m., more than four hours after the crash, B.C. Ferries issued a release "confirming" that "all 101 passengers and crew were safely evacuated via B.C. Ferries lifeboats." Three hours later, Hahn proclaimed "100 percent" certainty that the correct passenger count was 99.

By evening, B.C. Ferries had issued two reports, of "unconfirmed" validity, that "the two [missing] passengers disembarked from rescue vessels at Hartley Bay and found their own transportation back to Prince Rupert." But Hartley Bay is inaccessible by road, and there was no evidence that the couple had boarded a plane.

Thursday morning, Hahn said overly optimistic passengers contributed to the passenger count mix-up, saying that some simply wanted to believe they saw the couple. Upon questioning, he acknowledged that inaccurate passenger manifests complicated the head-count, but he also implied that the missing couple should have realized what was going on and fled the boat. "I'm still trying to understand with all that commotion how somebody couldn't recognize what was going on. Everybody else did," he said.

Hahn defended the delay in breaking the bad news about the lost passengers. "You don't want to go out and announce they are dead," Hahn told Victoria Times-Colonist reporter Rob Shaw. "I think that would have been very inappropriate." He was not quoted on whether it would have been better to wait rather than mistakenly announce everyone was alive.

Question #2: Did the sinking really have 'nothing to do with design flaws'?

Hahn was quoted in the Nanaimo Daily News on March 24, asserting that the boat's age and single-hold design had nothing to do with the sinking. "If you take any ship, I don't care how big it is…put it at 21 knots, now let's run it over the rocks. It had nothing to do with design flaws or anything else."

He also said that reporters focusing on the ship and its upkeep "just don't know what they're talking about."

But fleets that adhere to the International Maritime Safety (IMS) code, as B.C. Ferries does, are supposed to have safety mechanisms to prevent sinking. Ferries crash fairly frequently -- the Transport Safety Board's reports list one ferry crash a year, on average, and that's just in Canada. In 1992, the IMS modified its safety code so that ferries like the Queen of the North, so called "ro-ros" because they allow vehicles to roll on and roll off, would be altered to prevent them from sinking.

The re-fit involved the installation of "sponsons" -- large, solid, sealed, air-filled compartments that attach to the ship's sides near the water line, adding stability and buoyancy in case of a hull breach (like the one that sank the North). The North was recommended for such a re-fit three times since 1991. Local maritime engineer Bob Beadell and renowned Finnish shipbuilder Kvaerner Masa were among those recommending the changes, Province reporter Chris Montgomery found.

Question #3: On safety, where does the buck stop?

When it comes to keeping passengers and crew safe, who, ultimately, calls the shots at B.C. Ferries?

One candidate is Transport Canada, the government agency and regulating body for the nation's public transportation systems, including B.C. Ferries. According to their website, TC serves as a go-between for Minister of Transport Kevin Falcon and company management, to ensure that the company adheres to (or strives for) national safety, up-to-date regulations and environmental responsibility, among other goals.

Return, then, to the fact that Beadell's and Masa's recommendations for a sponson re-fit were never acted upon. In 2001, former B.C. Ferries CEO Bob Lingwood announced at the Ferry Advisory Committee Meeting that, without that fix, the Queen of Prince Rupert (which is now running the North's routes) would be "unserviceable beyond 2004," in accordance with Transport Canada's improved "damaged stability" regulations. "An appropriate used vessel must be located on the market or a new ship constructed," he said.

Opposition members Claire Trevena, Mike Farnworth and Bruce Ralston quoted these statements in the B.C. legislature on the Thursday after the North's sinking.

How, then, had B.C. Ferries managed to evade these globally accepted, critical safety upgrades for so long?

When The Tyee asked Transport Canada's media contact, Sau Sau Liu, she pointed us to B.C. Ferries. "We wouldn't have the answer to that." Upon asking B.C. Ferries' Deborah Marshall, The Tyee was told, "Ask Transport Canada."

Falcon told the B.C. legislature on March 23 that "every single vessel is certified by Transport Canada and has to receive an annual inspection certificate." The North had received hers on March 2.

Transport Canada is indirectly responsible for passenger safety, but B.C. Ferries itself has a designated person to ensure that IMS standards are upheld. Transport Canada delegated the safety inspections to B.C. Ferries, through a policy called "delegation by class." As such, B.C. Ferries has no independent safety monitor.

This has caused problems in the past. The Transit Safety Board's report on the Queen of Surrey's 2003 engine fire pointed to inadequate safety regulations. "The quality of inspections conducted by TC (Transport Canada) and by class may not be ensuring safe operational conditions," read the report. It went on to note that fleet-wide changes were advised by the TSB, yet were not fully implemented. That report was released a month before the North sank.

The TSB report found that no one oversaw implementation of safety standards. There was no infrastructure to ensure that changes were made, because TC was hands-off and B.C. Ferries, in order to save money, postponed alterations on several ships until they were due for re-fits.

Question #4: Did the fleet seriously deteriorate or not?

In light of the questions raised about B.C. Ferries organization and safety mechanisms, a critical question is whether the fleet has deteriorated in the past 20 years, and if so, how much.

"Everyone in B.C. knows that the capital plan of the ferries was allowed to deteriorate through the decade of the 90s," Premier Gordon Campbell told CBC news the day of the crash.

The following day, however, he assured reporters at the Calgary Herald and Times-Colonist: "We were not playing dice with this service," adding, "all of our ships in the ferry service are safe."

That same day, Hahn suggested the opposite. CP's Dirk Meissner quoted him calling the crash "15 years in the making," referring to government involvement as the reason for the decaying fleet.

Also that day, Transport Minister Kevin Falcon was quoted in Hansard as telling the B.C. legislature, "The vessels that ply the waters of British Columbia are safe."

He elaborated that "over $16 million" was spent on the Queen of the North "to improve the safety of that vessel, to overhaul the engines, to do some deck work." He called the changes "extensive." B.C. Ferries has refused to release the specifics of that re-fit, due to the ongoing TSB investigation.

Jackie Miller, president of the B.C. Ferry Workers' Union, had a different perspective on the re-fit -- one that went un-noted when the ferry sinking was making headlines.

"We [the union members] have a number of issues and concerns, and we have had them for a long time," she said.

One of them is the "spending priorities" of B.C. Ferries. Each of the five C-class ships (large, high-capacity "ro-ros," which include the Queens of Oak Bay and Surrey, both of which have had notable accidents in the past three years) underwent a $30 million re-fit last year. Most of the funds went to altering evacuation equipment and updating the cafeteria, "but very little went into the engineering side of it," said Miller.

Similarly, the Queen of Nanaimo, a 40-year-old ship, had a $13 million re-fit this spring, but the engines went "totally untouched," said Miller. The only alterations in the engine room involved a few replaced pipes.

When B.C. Ferries went private in 2003, Miller explained, "There should have been a complete fleet-wide audit on engineering, on the safety management system, and on the workforce."

"Instead, a check was drawn for $482 million to purchase the whole fleet. They detailed the land [and terminals], but not the ships themselves," Miller said. She listed training, policies practices, machinery and "vessel replacement strategy" as elements that went neglected when B.C. Ferries was turned over.

According to Miller, an ongoing vessel-replacement strategy should have been developed 20 years ago.

"The minute you lay the hull for one ship, you have to start planning for a seven- to 15-year redundancy."

This is consistent with the B.C. Ferries 2003 estimates for the "useful life" of a ship, set at 20 to 40 years, factoring in the time it takes to build a new ferry. In 2004, however, B.C. Ferries "removed the lower estimate of 20 years," according to MLA Mike Farnworth. Neither Falcon nor ferry representatives have explained why.

When presented with Miller's claims that more funds should have been spent on mechanical and safety upgrades, a B.C. Ferries representative sent an email to The Tyee simply stating that the company adheres to "stringent safety standards."

Question #5: Will the northern routes be further privatized, and how?

Miller speculated that the decommission date for the Queens of the North and Prince Rupert were repeatedly pushed back because B.C. Ferries "didn't have a plan for those ships, because they thought they were supposed to be decommissioned by this privatization." In other words, Transport Canada allowed B.C. Ferries to postpone building new ships, assuming that new private owners would supply their own vessels.

Graham Clarke, the sole bidder (besides B.C. Ferries itself) on the northern routes, was a passenger on the Queen of the North when it sank. He told CP on April 2 that he already had a suitable replacement ship, "a 15-year-old boat that could be put into service fairly quickly," to fill in for the Queen of the North. This ship has not been put to use, and Clarke's bid for the northern routes is still a full year from acceptance or rejection, according to the B.C. Ferries "alternate service provider" timeline.

Regardless, Clarke's competition might be stiff, since B.C. Ferries is both the evaluating body for the bidding process and the opposition bidder. At the time of the ferry sinking, the B.C. Liberal government publicly favoured establishing an independent 'fairness officer' who would act as a "Chinese Wall" to prevent a conflict of interest given that B.C. Ferries was to be both bidder and chooser. But by the end of March, B.C. Ferries and the B.C. Ferries commissioner had concluded such a "wall" would be "burdensome" and "inefficient." In its stead, B.C. Ferries has decided not to bid on its northern routes, but instead to write up a cost-benefit analysis, which it will compare to the proposal that Graham Clarke presents. "External resources," including "naval architects, lawyers, financial consultants and other expert resources," will offer their assessments, but ultimately, the decision is still in B.C. Ferries hands.

If Clarke's bid for the four northern routes (10, 11, 26 and 40) is successful, then B.C. Ferries will be a few steps closer to the privatization mandated by the 2003 Ferry Act, but even Clarke's bid has drawn skepticism from some. Graham Clarke's brother, Rob Clarke, is B.C. Ferries Chief Financial Officer. What effect might that relationship have on the independence of Graham Clarke's ferry system, wonders Peter Lahay, union leader for the International Transport Workers Federation. "Graham Clarke is already in that little community," Lahay said.

There is one more complication to the privatization plans for the northern routes. B.C. Ferries runs on a great deal of financial assistance from the government. The company required over $100 million in provincial funding and nearly $24 million in federal funding just to stay afloat last year. Since the federal government's grant is not divided among specific routes in specific amounts, but instead goes towards general B.C. Ferries expenses, there is no clear method yet for re-distributing the grant to private carriers.

Transport Canada evaluated the federal government's $24 million grant in 2005 and concluded that doling out the substantial sum to a private company is "somewhat contrary to the National Maritime Policy." But it also noted that B.C. Ferries cannot survive without the millions in government support, and in fact must survive to provide a vital service to northerners. Jackie Miller explained the finding as an indication that Transport Canada is concerned for the viability of the northern routes, should funding cease, as mandated by the Ferry Act. Will the northern routes be privatized, given this complication? If not, what are the implications of violating the Coastal Ferry Act, which mandates privatization?

Question #6: Are crew members satisfied ferries are safe?

In the meantime, the Queen of Prince Rupert is running what was the Queen of the North's route, and crew members are slowly, and not altogether steadily, returning to work. The emotional toll has been "very catastrophic," says Miller, but the effects have rippled to crew members who had never even set foot on the doomed ferry.

Sailors flat out refused to sleep below water level on the Prince Rupert, said Peter Lahay. He called the B.C. Ferries decision to move crew cabins up from below water level "an act of desperation." Sailors on the Queen of the North waded through chest-deep water to escape a sinking boat. Miller said some of the crew aboard the vessel awoke to the sound of water pouring into their cabins. Others reported struggling to open their cabin doors after the impact, fighting to escape as water poured in.

Miller added that crew members had long been concerned about the single-hold design shared by the Queen of the North and Queen of Prince Rupert.

On March 23, former crew member Lloyd Peacock wrote in a letter to the editor for The Province that the B.C. Ferries safety record was "only through sheer luck."

"The crews of these vessels have voiced their concerns for years, but they're not listened to."

Question #7: Why is there no suitable substitute ferry for the North?

B.C. Ferries media liaison Deborah Marshall said the global search for the Queen of the North's replacement entails "key factors" including "our stringent safety standards, age and condition of vessel, stability requirements, likelihood of dock fit and passenger and vehicle capacity. What is the condition of the propulsion system? What is the speed of the vessel? Will it stand a good chance of being approved by Transport Canada to sail in our waters?"

That severely limits the viable options. Any replacement ship will adhere to all those standards -- Miller says the union will ensure it. But, in the meantime, the Queen of Prince Rupert is running the Queen of the North's route, though it is smaller, older and was slated for decommission earlier than the Queen of the North.

"Likelihood of dock fit" is a "major issue" for a replacement ship, said B.C. Ferries. It is also a complicated issue, since ill-fitting ships would necessitate costly changes for only short-term results. Whereas safety standards on European ships should be largely up to snuff (Europe adheres more closely to the IMS than Canada does), and ships are made for all ranges of passenger capacities, adjusting northern docks to a larger ferry "would cost several million dollars," said Marshall. There are six to eight docks that might need adjusting. Though that sum shouldn't be a "show-stopper" -- to use Jackie Miller's words -- it would have to factor in the reality that new ships may soon be ordered, and will begin servicing the northern routes as early as 2008.

Buying existing ferries to fill in for a while and adjusting docks to fit might mean high expense for a very temporary solution, which could be very difficult for B.C. Ferries to bear, especially as costs are piling up. B.C. Ferries is now facing a list of unexpected expenses including fleet-wide adjustments to respond to the Queen of Surrey fire's TSB report findings, rapidly rising fuel prices, replacement of an aging fleet, recruiting younger crew to replace retiring personnel, and barge and plane services for people who used to rely on the Queen of the North for transport. Plus, maritime security requirements created after 9/11 require costly changes in infrastructure, and environmental standards are being raised, albeit slowly.

With the government's recent refusal to subsidize soaring energy costs, it is possible that B.C. Ferries simply cannot afford to buy or lease a replacement ship that doesn't already adhere to its standards -- including dock size.

Question #8: Where is the press coverage of these issues?

If so many concerns remain -- among crew, unions, and safety inspectors -- why are they now going largely unreported? Global's legislative reporter, Keith Baldrey, told the The Tyee it was largely because Hahn was the most accessible and quotable person on the scene. On a topic that few reporters know much about -- maritime policy -- Hahn was a reassuring voice, and few reporters could critique the qualities of his responses, lacking background knowledge about ferries. For Baldrey, "establishing early on that this was not a huge loss of life was reassuring," even though, "after that, not much was of huge value."

Hahn made numerous incorrect statements that appeared in the news. They include the incorrect passenger counts, declarations that ferries don't have tracking devices comparable to airplane black-boxes (TSB later sent mini submersibles back into the wreckage to retrieve the ship's "electronic chart system"), and statements dismissing crew claims that they were trapped in their quarters. Meanwhile, conflicting statements issued by Jackie Miller and established maritime journalists received far less or no ink.

In the days just following the ferry sinking, Chris Montgomery, a Province reporter who has long led the pack in maritime news, broke stories about the Queen of the North's delayed decommission date and the inaccurate passenger manifests. But after Montgomery co-wrote a story claiming an RCMP investigation into possible criminal negligence by B.C. Ferries was underway, Hahn publicly took issue with the claim that B.C. Ferries was itself the target of the investigation. An RCMP representative told The Tyee the difference of opinion between Montgomery and Hahn is one of "semantics," though a criminal investigation can not be formally announced until the TSB issues its report, possibly years away.

In the meantime, B.C. Ferries no longer returns Montgomery's phone calls.

The drama is over and the ship is history, but B.C. Ferries remains a taxpayer-subsidized private company. That arrangement shields B.C. Ferries from Freedom of Information requests that render crown corporations more transparent. And two months after the sinking of The Queen of the North, critical questions continue to float in the murk, awaiting deeper public inquiry.

Kendyl Salcito is on staff at The Tyee.

Related Tyee story: Lost Ferry's Toll on North Coasters  [Tyee]

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