Looking back on a boats wake, as it sails by a heavily tree lined shore

Death on the Coast: A Stormy Night, a Missing Tugboat

By  Zak Vescera, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Troy Pearson had never wanted a job on land. On Feb. 10, 2021, he got up early to make a big breakfast for his wife, Judy Carlick-Pearson,  and their 11-year-old son who had an 8 a.m. hockey practice in Prince  Rupert. 

Pearson worked on tugboats  at Wainwright Marine, a tug and barge company in nearby Kitimat. He had  been on the water since he was a 10-year-old on his dad’s fishing boat,  but Carlick-Pearson said safety problems at work were keeping him up at  night. “He didn’t feel safe,” she said. 

The two had big plans to open an auto  detail shop together the next month. Carlick-Pearson still remembers the  smell of him frying bacon, the coffee they shared together, the ride  she gave Troy to work, the kiss goodbye and the supportive honk she gave  him as he walked away. 

It was Charley Cragg’s first day on the  job. The 25-year-old had just moved to nearby Terrace and got the job at  Wainwright while waiting in the hiring pool for the coast guard. Cragg,  too, had loved working on water; his mom Genevieve Cragg said he was a  fishing guide and worked in conservation before his first day at  Wainwright, a day she plays in her head every month. “On the 10th of  every month at noon, I tell Charley not to get on that boat,” Genevieve  Cragg said. 

But he did, and so did  Pearson. The MV Ingenika set out late, hauling a barge more than five  times its length filled with construction equipment bound for a nearby  mine. Environment Canada had warned of a storm; gale-force winds of up  to 50 knots and freezing cold spray, but Ingenika set sail anyway. 

On Feb. 11, after midnight, the tug sent out an emergency beacon. Then it vanished.  

Ingenika sank to the bottom of the Gardner  Canal, its barge found floating nearby. Cragg and Pearson were lost at  sea. A third crewmate, Zac Dolan, was rescued after swimming ashore.  

“You’re never the same person,” Genevieve  Cragg said on Wednesday. “There’s nothing to get over. You change, you  absorb, but you never get over it.” 

On Monday, B.C. Crown prosecutors laid  eight charges against Wainwright and its director, James Geoffrey Bates,  alleging the company violated the Workers Compensation Act by failing  to protect its workers, or provide basic training or life-saving  equipment. 

Transport Canada had already fined Wainwright and another company owned by Bates $62,000 for violations linked to the sinking.

Graeme Hopper, a lawyer for Bates and  Wainwright, said his clients were reviewing the charges and would not  comment further at this time. 

Carlick-Pearson and Cragg say the charges  don’t go far enough. They want immediate reform in B.C.’s tugboat  industry, where businesses and unions alike say lax regulation and poor  oversight create safety risks. And they want stiffer punishment for  companies that endanger workers in a country where businesses almost  never face criminal charges. 

“Some people think situations like this  could be celebratory,” Carlick-Pearson said, speaking about the new  charges. “But really, it’s like a punch in the stomach.” 

“It’s grotesque to think that someone’s life is valued so little in Canada.” 

The Ingenika was more than half a century  old when she set sail for Kemano that night. Federal shipping records  show the tugboat was first registered in 1968 and was built at a  shipyard in New Westminster. 

The boat had an official gross weight of  14.63 tonnes, just below the threshold for mandatory federal  inspections. Transport Canada inspects tugboats 15 tonnes and up every  year. But the inspection regime for smaller vessels is optional, and  very few boats take part. 

“Because of their tonnage, they don’t bear  any scrutiny,” said Jason Woods. Woods is the president of the  International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 400. According to  Transport Canada, only 84 of the approximately 1,300 small tugs in the  country were registered in the voluntary compliance program as of Feb.  1. Those boats also aren’t measured to see if they are still under 15  tonnes, Woods said.

“It’s a voluntary compliance program, so people are voluntarily ignoring it,” Woods said. 

More than 80 per cent of those small  tugboats are in British Columbia. Decades ago, says Paul Hilder,  president of the Council of Marine Carriers, those vessels were used to  haul goods up and down sheltered waterways like the Fraser River, or to  tow logs. But as the forestry industry declined, some operators began  using those vessels in the open sea. There’s no limit on how long or  heavy a barge the boats can pull. 

“The difference is that regionally, out  here, we just have a problem with a smaller number of 15-tonne tugs that  are probably being repurposed from what they were intended to do and  are being operated outside parameters that were originally expected for  them,” said Hilder, whose organization represents the tugboat industry.

Hilder says that creates a two-tiered  system. Bigger tugboat owners have to undergo annual inspections and  abide by federal codes; smaller tugboat owners don’t have to, making  their operations cheaper. In some cases, Hilder says, those operators  may not even know about safety standards because there is no inspection  system. 

“The barrier to entry is basically buying a boat,” Hilder said. 

Canada’s Transportation Safety  Board has recorded 298 accidents involving barges or tugboats from 2011  to 2021 in the Pacific region alone. That breakdown doesn’t say how many  were small tugboats, but industry experts and unions alike believe  those boats can be particularly dangerous when operated incorrectly. 

A 2021 study from the Ocean, Coastal and  River Engineering Research Centre, for example, noted that some larger  companies worried that existing regulations “may be compromising safety  of operations of small tugboat operators.” 

The Transportation Safety Board has argued  for years that all boats should be part of that inspection regime.  Hilder agrees. He believes that hasn’t happened because Transport Canada  doesn’t have the resources to do it. “When you look at the sheer  numbers on them, putting an inspection regime on them that is going to  cover every facet of the 15-tonne tugs is a daunting task,” Hilder said.  As it stands, he said, many in the industry say Transport Canada rarely  inspects vessels in northern B.C.

“Traditionally, in the industry if you’re  north of Campbell River you will rarely see any kind of inspection  regime,” Hilder said. 

Transport Canada says it currently has 340  marine safety inspectors across the country, though roughly only 20 per  cent of them are conducting inspections on small vessels. Woods believes  that is far too few to fulfil the mandate Transport Canada currently  has, let alone expand it.

“Even if you had all inspectors inspecting tugboats, it would take you years to comb through it,” Woods said.

Taylor Bachrach, the MP for Skeena-Bulkley  Valley, which includes Kitimat, has been pressing for two years for new  regulations in the tugboat industry. He says he’s not satisfied with the  government’s response.

“My concern is that the federal government  is moving towards a safety management system approach for these smaller  vessels. And what we’ve seen in other sectors, such as the rail sector,  is that safety management systems are a kind of self-regulation where  the companies write their own rules,” Bachrach said. 

Bachrach also wants tougher penalties for companies found responsible when a worker is killed on the job. 

Wainwright and Bates, who also owns a  marine transport company with locations in Vancouver and Horseshoe Bay,  have not been convicted of the eight regulatory charges laid against  them this week. But if they are, the maximum fine for a first conviction  is less than $778,000, and the maximum jail sentence is six months. 

“We were disappointed there wasn’t a  criminal charge against causing death, against Wainwright and James  Bates. That was our original plea,” Carlick-Pearson said.

In Canada, companies can face criminal  charges for negligence causing death following changes that came into  effect after the Westray Bill was passed, legislation named after the  deadly Nova Scotia mining disaster that killed 26 people.

But since it came into law in 2004, only a  short list of people have been convicted. As of 2022, only one person  had served jail time, with one other person serving a community  sentence. 

“The number one thing is that it’s hard,”  said Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa. “And  the reason it’s hard is that the criminal law system we have in Canada  was deigned to apply to individuals.” 

Proving criminal negligence, Quaid said,  means proving a “marked departure” from what a reasonable person would  do. In a normal criminal trial with an individual, that’s difficult.  When it concerns an organization, she said, establishing negligence is  even harder. “The practical reality is that the employer will typically  be motivated to try and come and deal with prosecutors,” Quaid said. 

Genevieve Cragg says the eight charges  against Wainwright and Bates are significant. But she too is waiting to  see if RCMP recommend criminal proceedings. She says Charley wasn’t  trained in the yard before he went out on the water, something she says  is a clear safety violation.

“I really want the message to go out that  without criminal charges, we’re sending a message that bad behaviour is  rewarded,” Cragg said. 

Cragg and Carlick-Pearson have spoken to  media dozens of times since the Ingenika sank. Both have willingly  spoken to reporters and government officials about what they describe as  the worst moment of their lives. 

Cragg wants to see specific changes in law  linked to Ingenika’s sinking. “I am the biggest stakeholder in this,”  she said. “That was my son, and he was taken out.”

Carlick-Pearson is motivated by her son.  “My son is just like his dad in a sense that he has saltwater in his  veins,” she said.   

“If my son ever wanted to be in a company that was lacking in safety and regulatory practices, that could put him at risk.”

Image credit: Home to Kitimat – Photo by Jack Borno via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA, 3.0 License)

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