Investigation into dangerous Wolfe Island ferry incident concluded, questions left unanswered

People clamour to help a man who slipped down the ramp on the Wolfe Island dock at Dawson Point after the ramp suddenly gave way on February 8, 2023. The dump truck driving away is the sole vehicle that made it off the boat that night — and luckily the truck, its driver, and the man who was dangling above the icy Lake Ontario — made it onto terra firma. Submitted photo, taken from on board the Wolfe Islander III.

For years now, Wolfe Island residents have been calling for transparency and better communication from the government with regard to the operations of the Wolfe Island ferry service.

Delays in receiving the new electric ferry destined to transport Islanders and visitors to and from Wolfe Island were only the beginning of the still ongoing frustrations experienced by users of the ferry service. Since then, the new electric boat has been put into storage in Picton and the construction of the new charging dock severely delayed, causing a myriad of issues for Islanders, from a lack of financial influx in the tourism season to difficulties commuting to the “winter dock” at Dawson Point. And the current ferry, the Wolfe Islander III, has been riddled with issues affecting service, including severe staffing shortages and a plethora of mechanical and maintenance issues.

No one thought it would take a near tragedy to open up the lines of communication between the Islanders and the various government entities involved – mainly the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO).

But when a situation that could easily have cost lives did occur, many people suggested that the frightening events might be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in terms of finally getting some answers from the powers that be.

Somehow, however, that’s not the case. Weeks of dealing with multiple government agencies revealed to Kingstonist that the conclusion of an investigation into the aforementioned event earlier this month is just one more piece of frustration in the growing pile – a conclusion that wasn’t publicly shared and which led to absolutely no further action.

To better understand the whole debacle, we’ll go back to the near tragedy that took place last month.

What happened on February 8, 2023

On the night of Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, a handful of people came close to being injured – or worse – after an incident that still remains unexplained by authorities. When the 7 p.m. ferry from Kingston got to Wolfe Island at Dawson Point, the deckhands on the boat lowered the boat’s ramp onto the dock’s ramp, opened up the gates, and directed drivers in the middle lane of vehicles on the ferry to begin disembarking, as usual. The first vehicle to depart the ferry was a dump truck driven by Dan Berry. On Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, Berry explained what happened next.

“Well, it was a typical day on Wolfe Island, I guess,” Berry said with a sarcastic laugh – Islanders, while unimpressed and annoyed, have come to expect the unexpected when it comes to ferry service.

“We were coming off the boat like they normally do, and I started driving off. I was the first one off the boat and, in a matter of seconds, everything went bad, I guess…”

Berry’s voice trailed off for a moment as he recalled how, suddenly, everything just sort of fell away beneath him, giving him that instant feeling in his stomach that he was — literally — no longer on solid ground.

“So I drove off the boat, and I felt the truck go down and I heard a big bang, and, uh… I just kept driving. One of those things, I guess, you try to get to higher ground!” Berry’s laid-back demeanour didn’t hide the fact this moment had been anything but ‘business as usual.’ The lifelong Wolfe Islander’s gut instinct to drive and drive hard may well have saved the situation from getting far worse. But he wasn’t alone.

What Berry heard and felt, according to multiple witness accounts, was the boat ramp from the Island dock giving way beneath him. As it did, the force of the dump truck exiting the boat pushed the boat back, away from shore – as the laws of physics would predict if no one had tied the boat off. No one expects that the ferry is not tied to the mainland once it docks, and certainly no one expects the gates to open and vehicles to be ushered off the ferry if it isn’t tied off. And while no one from the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario (MTO), Transport Canada, or the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) will confirm that the boat wasn’t tied up on the Island side, people who were on the boat that night will.

One of these is a woman who helped to pull up a young man who was dangling above the frigid waters, clinging to the now-collapsed ramp – which was terrifyingly in between the concrete dock and the Wolfe Islander III.

That witness, who wants all attention on the issues at hand and not on her heroic efforts (“I don’t want to be a hero or anything, I just did what needed to be done,” she said), will remain anonymous but will be identified as ‘Julie.’ She candidly and vividly recalled what happened as she was disembarking from the ferry on foot, accompanied by two friends, and was walking across the ramp as it collapsed.

According to Julie, and as per the Twitter updates from the Wolfe Islander III Twitter account, there was an interruption to regular ferry service due to an ambulance call on the island. Often, when there is a medical emergency on Wolfe Island, the ferry turns around mid-crossing to pick up the ambulance and patient without picking up any other passengers, or empties passengers and vehicles on the Kingston side, possibly picks up the ambulance, returns to the island, and then crosses back to Kingston without picking up any other passengers or vehicles. This can result in a large number of vehicles and passengers waiting for ferry service on both sides However, those who use the ferry and live on the island do not flinch over these service interruptions, knowing full well the life-saving mission occurring.

Such was the case the night of February 8; multiple vehicles and passengers were waiting to take the ferry on both sides of the crossing, Julie explained.

When the boat was pulling into dock at Dawson Point, Julie and her friends left the passenger cabin on one side of the boat and crossed the boat to disembark on the opposite side. Julie recalled one of the deckhands saying to the captain, “You’re not really lined up, you’re gonna have to back up and try it again.” That happened, and, once aligned properly, things continued as usual: the ramp on the boat and the ramp on the island were both lowered, creating the ‘bridge’ to the island for those who were disembarking. Julie and her friends were first in line to disembark.

“I got off just as the first dump truck went to drive off, and the boat just got pushed back and I literally leaped over the little crevice, you know, between the ramp that’s on the mainland… and the ramp that comes down off the boat,” she recalled.

“Because the boat got pushed back, like, the ramp on the land [side] just fell, you know — fell right down,” Julie recounted.

“And I’m one of those people who — I don’t know, I have instinctual reactions, and I just looked over the ramp and pulled myself up, and then immediately turned around, and there’s this poor guy midway down the ramp, oh my god, god love him…”

She paused for a moment, recalling how “everything happened so quickly after that.”

“I turned around, and I started scooting down the ramp to this poor kid,” she said. (Julie later clarified with a laugh, “I said ‘kid,’ but, I mean, he was in his 20s.”)

As Julie put herself in harm’s way in an attempt to help the man, one of her friends also sprang into action. “He must’ve just jumped down, onto the… grated part where the cars come up and down,” she said.

“And he leapt in front of me and grabbed hold of the guy. And I think behind me, one of the deckhands… she grabbed my backpack, because she saw what I was trying to do. Meanwhile, [my friend] has got a hold of one arm, I’ve got a hold of the other arm…”

She paused again, this time to take a breath while taking in how horrific what happened next could have been.

“And then, all of a sudden, the boat guns it back toward the shore!” Julie stammered, awe in her voice.

“And all of us are screaming ‘No, go back, go back!’ Just yelling our heads off because this kid still has his legs kind of over the edge…” she recalled, a few expletives falling from her mouth as she thought through the events.

“And then finally, someone clues in on the boat, and the boat sort of scooches backwards. Now it’s about 30 feet off the shore, just sitting there like a ghost vessel, as we get this poor guy up off the dock, you know, kind of move him over, and we’re all just standing there.”

As she explained what occurred, it was obvious she was at a loss as to why and how these events occurred in the first place.

Although the man who fell down the ramp insisted he did not want or need medical attention, people on the shore – including the deckhand – convinced him otherwise. While he was being attended to, Julie said, she looked back out to the lake where, unbelievably, the boat had just left, back to the Kingston dock.

“No one from the boat said or yelled anything to us. No one was checking to make sure everyone was all right,” she said in disbelief, noting that, without Berry’s strength added to the rescue efforts, she is not sure what would have occurred with the young man who fell.

“The MTO needs to answer for these mistakes. And, to be honest, I really don’t even blame the deckhands.”

Julie explained that, like many islanders, she is aware that those staffing the Wolfe Islander III are not regular ferry staff: “There’s definitely some new faces, and, when you take the boat all the time, you notice.” Further, she said, it’s not all that surprising that issues arose that night. After all, staffing and mechanical issues have become commonplace when it comes to ferry service, and the MTO had noted problems with the ramps on multiple occasions before February 8.

The lack of communication – let alone answers – coming from the MTO a full 48 hours after the shocking event was “appalling” and “pretty disgusting,” Julie said. At the time, she had no idea how many more days would pass without communication, nor that communication from the MTO might not happen at all.

“No one has contacted me, I can tell you that much,” she said, disappointment dripping from her words.

Those looking to play devil’s advocate might speculate that no one from the government body that owns and runs the ferry was in contact with Julie because she’d purposefully tried not to draw attention to herself, right?

Apparently not. As of the time of publication of this article, truck driver Dan Berry has not been contacted by anyone from the MTO either. No one from Transport Canada – who the MTO indicated would be investigating the matter – has reached out to Berry. And this is despite all islanders knowing one another, and despite Berry personally giving his contact information to a deckhand that night.

The aftermath and ‘investigation’

As mentioned, the MTO indicated that they and Transport Canada would be investigating the incident. For Wolfe Island Mayor Judy Greenwood-Speers, that investigation was paramount.

“So I’m looking forward to the investigation being done by Transport Canada and the MTO. And that’s what I expect [it to be], a fully transparent investigation,” Mayor Greenwood-Speers said when asked for comment on the February 8 incident.

“I don’t know whether it was human error or mechanical-related, because I wasn’t there. I think we need to know, is it one or the other, so we can make sure it doesn’t happen a second time.”

Asked whether she had been made aware of any help coming from the province or Kingston and the Islands MPP Ted Hsu, Greenwood-Speers reiterated her faith in the investigation process.

“They’re doing [an] investigation, and I have every confidence that they’ll get right to the bottom line, because it certainly could have been a potential disaster or that someone was injured, [beyond being] traumatized… They were scared, and rightly so,” she said.

“I’d like to know what the cause was and get it fixed. Because I’m a practical person, I know that our ferries and our docks were put in place when I was in high school, and I’m well retired.”

Greenwood-Speers said that routine and ongoing maintenance “only increases with age,” and also pointed to the staffing shortages and training staff on the new electric ferry as compounding issues.

“When you’re already [low on staff members who] are qualified for new technology and keeping the old technology going as well, it becomes a big challenge,” she said.

“So I do have patience, but I am very cognizant that we want to have safety. I’m looking forward to them having their investigation, [finding] out what the root cause was, and [fixing] it.”

Asked if she expected the investigation to involve speaking with all of those who experienced the events on February 8, Greenwood-Speers said, “I expect in an investigation… I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t contact people.”

For his part, MPP Hsu pointed to the questions he had already submitted to the Ontario Minister of Transportation, Caroline Mulroney, in October 2022. At the time, the Ontario Legislature was not sitting, but he expected to receive response before the end of February, Hsu relayed.

When response was received – specifically around the amount being spent to hire agency workers to staff the Wolfe Islander III – MPP Hsu made that information public on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023.

The new electric ferries for Amherst Island (left) and Wolfe Island (right) remain moored in Picton, pictured here in December 2022. Photo via Picton Terminals.

Turning to the investigation the MTO assured Wolfe Islanders would occur, attempting to look into that investigation became somewhat of a shell game, with various provincial and federal agencies directing inquiries to one another.

Initially, the MTO indicated that Transport Canada would be the lead on the investigation.

“MTO takes the incident very seriously. We are cooperating with Transport Canada, and a full internal investigation will be conducted to determine the cause,” Aruna Aundhia, Senior Media Relations Advisor for the Communications Branch of the Ministry of Transportation, said on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, around 6:30 p.m.

Asked to explain what had occurred, the MTO made no response, despite Kingstonist’s repeated attempts to communicate more openly with the MTO.

Kingstonist then approached Transport Canada in an attempt to learn more about what had actually occurred and what would be taking place in terms of the investigation.

“Transport Canada is aware of the incident that took place with the Wolfe Islander III ferry near Dawson Point on February 8, 2023. The safety of Canadians and the transportation system are Transport Canada’s top priorities,” Hicham Ayoun, Senior Communications Advisor with Transport Canada said on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

“A Transport Canada Marine Safety Inspector attended the site of the incident on February 9, 2023, to gather information. In addition, Transport Canada has followed up with the vessel’s authorized representative regarding the incident. Transport Canada will not hesitate to take appropriate action should the department identify any non-compliance with the Canada Shipping Act, 2001.”

Ayoun then indicated that the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) “is the lead ad federal investigative agency for transportation incidents in Canada,” instructing Kingstonist to contact the TSB “for more information on any potential investigation into the cause and contributing factors of this incident.”

After KIngstonist made a few attempts to connect with the TSB, Chris Krepski, Media Relations Specialist with the TSB, responded, indicating the TSB was “aware of the occurrence” and that he would find out what activity had taken place since.

“On 08 February 2023 the passenger vessel ‘WOLFE ISLANDER III,’ with 87 people on board, reported that a foot passenger fell on the wharf apron while disembarking as the vessel moved away from its loading ramp in Dawson Point, ON. The passenger was assisted by other nearby passengers. No serious injuries were reported,” Krepski relayed on Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, having consulted with the TSB’s Marine Investigations Branch.

“The TSB was notified of the occurrence. After following up and assessing the information, the occurrence was classified as a class 5 investigation. Class 5 investigations are limited to collecting data, which are then stored in the modal database.”

According to the TSB ‘Policy on Occurrence Classification,’ a class 5 occurrence “has little likelihood of identifying new safety lessons that will advance transportation safety.”

“The occurrence may involve fatalities and/or serious injuries. There is little or no release of dangerous goods. There is minimal damage to property or the environment. The occurrence attracts limited public interest outside of the immediate area,” the Policy of Occurrence Classification reads.

“The investigation is limited to data gathering and the data are recorded for statistical reporting and future analysis.”

Kingstonist followed up with Krepski to confirm that the investigation had concluded and, as it was a Class 5 occurrence, would therefore result solely in the storage of the data collected in the investigation on file with the TSB. Specifically, the TSB was asked to confirm that no further action would be taken. Krepski confirmed it was “exactly that.”

“The data are recorded for statistical reporting and future analysis,” he said.

Because the MTO, in cooperation with Transport Canada, had pointed to the investigation as the next step in addressing the events of February 8 — and because Transport Canada had indicated it would “not hesitate to take appropriate action should the department identify any non-compliance with the Canada Shipping Act, 2001” — Kingstonist followed up with both organizations to confirm the information conveyed by the TSB.

After one failed attempt to connect with Transport Canada again, the federal agency’s media relations representative identified solely as Sau Sau responded on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

“The Transportation Safety Board is the lead federal investigative agency for transportation incidents in Canada in determining cause and contributing factors, and it operates independent of Transport Canada. Transport Canada’s role as a federal regulator is to determine if the circumstances of the incident included any non-compliance with the Canada Shipping Act, 2001. For more information on any potential investigation into the cause and contributing factors of this incident, please contact the Transportation Safety Board directly,” Sau Sau conveyed initially.

“Transport Canada reviewed the circumstances of the incident and followed up with the Authorized Representative, requiring that they ensure proper docking procedures are followed. Transport Canada remains committed to engaging with the Authorized Representative,” they added.

Asked who the “Authorized Representative” in this situation would be, Sau Sau indicated that entity is the “someone who represents the vessel’s owner.” Further pressed for who the owner of the Wolfe Islander III is, Sau Sau responded, “For more information on this incident, please reach out directly to the vessel owner, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation.”

Indeed, Kingstonist did reach out directly to the MTO, asking for confirmation that the investigation had concluded and whether any further action would be taken by the MTO.

“The safety of our travellers is our top priority. We will continue to work with the Transportation Safety Board and safety partners to ensure ferry services remain safe for all travelers,” the MTO’s media relations team responded, also on Friday, Feb. 24, 2023.

“The Ministry has not yet received the report from [the] Transportation Safety Board. Once received, we will determine what further steps may be required.”

Kingstonist responded, requesting follow-up communications once that report is received. The MTO did not respond, even after multiple attempts.

Now what?

All of that leaves Berry, the first-hand witness, the man who fell down the ramp and nearly into the lake, and everyone else who experienced the occurrence – where multiple people could have easily been crushed by the ferry – in exactly the same place they were in the days following the events.

“It hasn’t been handled properly, as far as I’m concerned. I get that we’re getting a new boat, but they’ve hired these people to run our boat while our staff is getting trained on the new boat, and nobody’s trained anybody on this one, obviously. I mean, the boat wasn’t even tied up!” Berry said back on February 10.

“We’d all like answers. I think we’d like to figure out why it happened and how it’s being dealt with. If there’s this mass investigation on this, how come nobody’s ever contacted anybody involved?”

For him, the whole incident raises to a question many Wolfe Islanders have posed over the past few years.

“If something like this happened on the 401, it goes to the news and it gets fixed,” he said, noting that, with the ferry situation and the February 8 incident, it “almost seemed like it was swept under the rug — like, hush, hush, nothing ever happened.”

“Had someone actually seriously got hurt, what steps would have been taken?” he wondered.

Berry, who made it home to his wife and kids that night and was back on the ferry days later – where he and his family made sure to watch that the boat was tied off – pointed to the very thing that makes the issues plaguing the Wolfe Island ferry service such a painful and important matter for islanders.

“100 per cent, something’s gotta get done,” he said, noting the lack of communication from the MTO is “definitely not good.”

“I mean, it’s a way of life. There’s probably 3,000 full-time people that live over there,” he concluded.

“It’s… it’s a ride home, right?”

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