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Maritime press release -

Dispute muddies ferry probe

VANCOUVER -- As federal investigators prepare a new dive to the final resting place of the Queen of the North, the waters are being muddied by a war of words between B.C. Ferries president David Hahn and the union representing officers and crew aboard the vessel when it crashed into an island and sank.

Shortly after the ferry-workers union called yesterday for a full safety audit of the large B.C. ferry fleet, Mr. Hahn accused two union members of stonewalling company attempts to get to the bottom of the sinking.

He said they have refused to shed light on what happened during critical minutes when the large ferry veered off course in the narrow Grenville Channel, south of Prince Rupert, and ran into Gil Island at high speed in the early hours of March 22. One of them was on the bridge at the time, Mr. Hahn told reporters. "There's 14 minutes of a black hole that needs to be filled."

But B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers' Union president Jackie Miller shot back that Mr. Hahn already knows what occurred. Early on, she said, the ship's crew answered all questions put to them about the sinking by the fleet's corporate lawyers. "He has access to every aspect of the voyage through his own legal counsel," Ms. Miller said.

She said those questions were answered on a confidential basis, as part of an investigation into the sinking, for insurance purposes.

But there is no protection for crew members in the company's own internal inquiry, Ms. Miller said, adding that information they provide may be used against them in potential legal action or even made public.

"What Mr. Hahn wants is 14 public minutes. He wants to try and convict someone for the sinking of the Queen of the North and deflect responsibility away from the shipowners."

She said some crew members are declining to answer questions on the advice of their lawyers.

Mr. Hahn has threatened to suspend or fire employees who refuse to co-operate with the internal inquiry.

Two passengers died when the Queen of the North sank in 430 metres of water.

It was the first sinking in the history of B.C. Ferries.

Yesterday's charge and countercharge heightened the swirling controversy this week over the disclosure that some crew members on the bridge of the Queen of the North were unfamiliar with the vessel's newly installed steering and navigational equipment.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which is investigating the accident, was sufficiently alarmed by the finding to send a safety advisory to Mr. Hahn.

Suggesting that management was responsible for the crew's lack of training on the new equipment, the TSB advised the fleet to take steps to ensure that, in future, all relevant crew members are adequately trained on new or modified equipment.

Mr. Hahn has questioned the significance of the advisory, wondering why crew members would sail if they did not know how some of the equipment worked.

Ms. Miller, meanwhile, called for a complete safety audit of the ferry fleet.

"B.C. Ferries has consciously made decisions, in the past, to sail vessels our members deem to be unsafe," she told a crowded news conference.

TSB investigators hope to send a submersible to the wreck of the Queen of the North soon.

Spokesman John Cottreau said the submersible will try to photograph the bridge of the sunken ferry and try to bring up the ship's electronic chart system.

The ECS, installed during a refit, has emerged as a key element in the investigation. While not the only navigation instrument on board, the ECS is designed to show exactly where a ship is, with respect to the shore, on both sides of a waterway.

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