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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A conversation between two former lovers navigating a Canadian ferry may have contributed to the ship's fatal sinking, according to an investigation released on Wednesday.
A distracted bridge crew failed to make a steering change and allowed the Queen of the North to sail on the wrong course for nearly 15 minutes until it slammed into an island off Canada's Pacific coast in 2006, according to the Transportation Safety Board.
The board stressed it does not know why the crew failed to realize their mistake, but among the possible distractions was a "personal" conversation between the male bridge officer and a female crewmember at the helm. The two had ended a romantic relationship two weeks before the accident.
The officer told investigators he was sure he ordered the course change but there is no evidence the ship made the needed turn, the board said.
At the time of the crash there should have been a third person on the bridge, and alarms that should have alerted them to danger were turned off. When the crew suddenly saw the island looming ahead of the ferry, the less-experienced helmswoman did not know how to switch from autopilot to manual steering.
"The system failed that night," said Pierre Murray, a senior marine investigator with the board.
The ship, operated by government-owned BC Ferries, sank in the middle of the night of March 22, 2006, after hitting Gil Island near the village of Hartley Bay, on its scheduled route down the rugged British Columbia coast.
Ninety-nine passengers and crew were able to scramble into lifeboats as the ship rapidly sank, but two passengers never made it off the vessel and their bodies are assumed to be trapped in the wreckage on the ocean floor.
The site is about 145 km (90 miles) south of Prince Rupert, in British Columbia's Inside Passage, a route along the rugged coastal wilderness that is traveled by thousands of cruise ship tourists each summer.
Rumors that a romantic relationship contributed to the accident have circulated for a long time, and the TSB refused to provide more details on the pair's conversation -- saying only that the bridge crew co-operated fully with the investigation.
"There's rumors and speculation, and everybody would like to know this, that and the other... I understand that, but we're looking at this from a different lens, and from a safety perspective we learned what we needed to learn," said TSB Chairwoman Wendy Tadros,
The board investigates transportation accidents and recommends safety improvements that governments should make. It does not assign blame in its investigations.
The TSB said its investigation was hampered by the fact the ship did not have a voice-recorder on the bridge -- something it has recommended be required for all large passenger ferries in Canada.
The ferry workers union said the bridge crew was being treated unfairly and they are shattered by what happened the night of the accident. "They are being dragged through the mud," union President Jackie Miller told a radio interviewer.
The bridge officer apologized in a written statement to local media, saying he would gladly have exchanged his life for those who died in the crash.
The TSB report did not satisfy lawyers representing passengers who survived and relatives of the two who died, saying there was radar and other equipment on board to warn them the island was ahead.
"You tell me what a 14-minute personal conversation is that prevented all of that. It looks like they didn't even look out the windows," said Peter Ritchie, who is representing the daughters of a man killed in the wreck.
BC Ferries said it was disappointed the report did not determine what happened in the ship's final 14 minutes, and it said it was already instituting several of the safety measures recommended by investigators.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; editing by Rob Wilson