‘There was no warning’: How a collision with a Russian freighter 50 years ago nearly cut a B.C. ferry in half

Fifty years ago, Ken Warren was a young man moving to Victoria for a new teaching job when he became a part of B.C. history.

On Aug. 2, 1970, a Russian freighter crashed into the Queen of Victoria in Active Pass, almost slicing the B.C. ferry in two.

“It must have been close to noon time because I was having +my lunch and then a Russian freighter impacted us so hard that pretty much anybody standing on the boat fell” Warren, now 82, told Global News.

“I was in there having lunch so most people in the cafeteria fell over or had their food fall on top of them.”

5:26 Remembering the moment a Russian freighter hit a B.C. ferry in 1970

Remembering the moment a Russian freighter hit a B.C. ferry in 1970

The Queen of Victoria was on its way to Victoria carrying 626 passengers when it entered the narrow body of water between Galiano and Mayne Islands.

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The strait is only 400 metres wide at its narrowest point and features a blind corner, making it incredibly dangerous for passing vessels.

Upon approaching Active Pass, the captain made a radio call announcing the ferry’s entry into the strait and asked if there was any other traffic nearby. No one answered.

About a minute after entering Active Pass at full speed (15.5 knots), the ferry came face-to-face with the Soviet freighter Sergey Yesenin. The ship immediately reduced its speed, but it was too late.

Read more: VIDEO: On this day in 1970 a freighter crashed into a B.C. ferry, killing 3 people

“It was pretty well panic because no one knew what had happened,” Warren said. “Women screaming, people trying to locate their children. People learning that we’d been hit by a Russian freighter.”

“There was no warning or announcement that a collision was imminent. We had no idea if we would sink.”

Warren rushed down to his car to check his belongings before the crew shut off access to the lower decks. He said there was a lot of water down there streaming from broken pipes.

“It was scary and as I learned later, the reason the staff was really weak on this was because they had hired so many university students in the summertime and they hadn’t properly trained them for emergencies because they never had emergencies,” Warren added.

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Three people died in the collision: 17-year-old Sheila Taylor, Mrs. George Hammond and her seven-month-old baby Peter.

Hammond and her son had remained in their car while Taylor was on the deck. They all died upon impact.

Warren remembers fellow passengers scrambling to get life preservers. Amid the confusion, many ended up with a life preserver that was the wrong size or didn’t get one at all.  Even the kitchen staff just left the burners on as they tried to get to safety.

“The only thing that I can remember [from the aftermath] is that one of the Russian sailors jumped on to the ferry and he got scolded.”

0:38 Archive: Russian freighter slams into Queen of Victoria ferry

Archive: Russian freighter slams into Queen of Victoria ferry

Warren remembers the ferry had to be towed all the way back to Tsawwassen.

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“We had to push vehicles off the ferry because of the gas leaking, they didn’t want sparks from cars starting up. So there were hundreds of guys pushing vehicles off,” he said.

“It wasted at least five hours of our time.”

Warren’s car was damaged but he said his insurer Allstate — this was before ICBC — had his car fixed and back to him the following day.

He still takes the ferry back to the mainland to visit his son’s family, but says he doesn’t really think of the incident.

“I suppose when I am in Active Pass I have a memory of it,” he said.

“It was 50 years ago.”

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