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Published June 5, 2020

The Channel which separates England from Continental Europe is, in places, narrow enough to see from one shore to another – on a clear day, at least. It’s not only possible to swim across, but it’s been done more than 2,000 times.

That  does not mean, however, that the crossing is trivial.

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Source: Unsplash

Long before the Channel Tunnel was built, cross-Channel ferries made it easy for day-trippers and holiday makers to cross the channel and explore the popular port towns on the other side. The first car ferries began in the 1920’s, and after the Second World War they gained in popularity.

They moved quickly from using cranes to lift cars onto the ferries to special ships designed to allow the motorists to drive straight on at one end and straight off at the other. These were known as Roll-On, Roll-Off ferries, or “RORO” for short. They made it easy for British holidaymakers to take their own car on holiday in European countries – and indeed, when I was a child, my family used them for our own holidays.

The ferry offered not only convenience, but also affordability – and in early 1987, it was more affordable than ever, thanks to an offer in The Sun newspaper, which allowed people to travel for just one pound. With inflation, that would still be less than three pounds, or equivalent to about three dollars and fifty cents in today’s US currency.

On the evening of the 6th of March, 1987, many of the passengers boarding at Zeebrugge for the trip back to Dover had taken advantage of that offer. Amongst them were Michael and Maureen Bennett, with their daughter Theresa and her fiance Mark. Theresa had planned the trip to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary. They had spent the day in Ostend, and according to Maureen, “really had a smashing time.” 

The passengers ranged from families like the Bennetts to groups like 19-year-old Simon Osborne and his friends, who spent their day on a bar crawl around Ostend. There were also quite a few members of the British services, stationed on the continent and going home for leave, some of whom were also travelling with their families. Stan Mason was a Lance Corporal with the 1st Battalion of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, and was based in Germany. He was travelling with his wife Cath and four month old daughter Kerry, to get her christened amongst their families.

There were also a lot of truck drivers, as commercial transport was an important part of the ferry business. Cabins on the ferry were allocated to the truck drivers first, so that they could rest during the crossing, and only released to other passengers if the commercial drivers didn’t take them up. 

It would be difficult to establish later exactly how many people boarded the ferry that evening, and precisely who they were, since the operators Townsend Thoresen did not maintain a complete passenger list. Cars driving on board had their registration numbers recorded, but only the names of the drivers were taken. The number of passengers given by the later inquiry was 459.

The Herald of Free Enterprise, first launched at the end of 1979, had eight decks. At the bottom, beneath the water level, H Deck housed some of the passenger accommodation, as well as various sections of machinery, fuel and fresh water storage, and ballast tanks. 

G Deck was the main vehicle deck, a huge open space through the whole of the ship. At the bow – the front of the ship – there were double watertight doors, which opened to 6m x 4.9m, or 20ft x 16ft, while the stern or rear had a single watertight door, 8.5m x 4.73m or 28ft x 15ft. 

F Deck was a mezzanine car deck, with ramps down to G Deck for loading and unloading. There was also crew accommodation at the sides of this deck. 

E Deck was the upper vehicle deck, which had its own watertight doors at each end; D Deck was a suspended level for vehicles with ramps down to E Deck. 

C Deck was the main passenger deck. It had a cafeteria, a restaurant for the commercial drivers, a bar, duty-free alcohol and perfume shops, an observation lounge, bureau de change, information office and the galley. 

B Deck had a passenger lounge, restaurant, cafeteria, bar and TV lounge, alongside crew and officer mess rooms and crew accommodation. 

Finally, A Deck had the officers’ accommodation and the radio room. The bridge was on a mezzanine level between decks A and B. 

The ship had a crew of 80, and they had to work hard to clean the ship and load all the passengers between each ship. On this occasion, because the cheap ticket offer had boosted passenger numbers, it was worse than usual. The Herald was running five minutes late as it finally got underway at 1805 GMT. It seems likely that Captain David Lewry hoped to make that time up over the course of the journey back to Dover. 

A harbour tug guided the Herald as she turned around in the harbour; she made her way out at five knots, and then, at 1824 GMT, as she passed the outer mole and made her way out towards the open sea, the ferry accelerated, going as fast as 18 knots.

Source: Unsplash

On board, a few of the passengers braved the cold air to watch the lights of Zeebrugge slip into the distance, but most were gathered inside. Many of the commercial drivers took to their cabins, because it was important for them to get enough rest to drive safely, or made their way to the restaurant on C Deck for some food. Likewise, many of the other passengers were in the restaurant, cafeteria or bar to enjoy some food and drink, while the opening of the duty free shops called others to look for last-minute gifts and bargain booze. Simon Osborne was amongst them, hoping to find some nice perfume for his girlfriend.

The Bennetts had agreed on a system to allow all of them to enjoy the trip worry-free – two of them would get food while the other two looked after their luggage, and then later they would swap. Michael and Maureen went to dinner, while Theresa and her fiance Mark stayed in the lounge.  Michael remarked later on the mood of the passengers.

“It was a happy atmosphere aboard, it was, you know, everybody had enjoyed themselves.”

Sheila McKenny, another passenger using the Sun tokens for a cheap trip, was in the cafeteria with her family, husband Richard, their son Wayne, Sheila’s daughter Lynette Carvley and Lynette’s daughter Rebecca. They had befriended 54-year old Nora Woodhouse as they queued. Richard said later;

“My wife befriended a lady in a wheelchair as we waited to board. The lady became quite friendly with Sheila as it turned out they were from the same area, Lancashire, and they chatted, as women do, for quite some time… the lady in the wheelchair asked if she could sit with us, at the end of the table, but in her chair in the alley way, so that she and my wife could carry on chatting to each other.”

Rosina Summerfield had settled into one of the lounges with her boyfriend, son and friend Julie, but decided at the last minute that they wanted some things from their car. They checked with the purser, and were told they could go down to the car deck, but would have to hurry as it would be locked soon.

As the ship picked up speed, it began to sway; first to port, then to starboard. Some passengers reported a cheer from the bar – the sort of humour common amongst the British, and particularly amongst their armed forces. Soldier Jim Garvey said,

“It started very slowly. Plates started to slip across the tables. Everyone began to joke about it and waited for the plates to slide back. Then suddenly there was an almighty crash as a pile of plates fell to the floor in the kitchen. Some thought it was a big wave and some people clapped. The ship rolled back and then rolled over to the opposite side, slow at first, then it suddenly accelerated like a wire had been cut. Flickering lights went out and there was a huge screeching noise. No one had a chance.”

Michael Bennett described it later;

“The sensation you get is like somebody is pulling the rug from underneath you, you can’t get any hold, you can’t hold on to anything… The only thing that was stopping me from going over was because the tables were strapped to the floor. If the tables had shifted, I would have gone.”

On the bridge, Captain Lewry had time to shout, “What’s going on here?” and try to execute an emergency stop before the ship rolled. He was thrown 40 feet – a little over 12 metres – from the starboard side of the bridge to the port side, as the walls became floors, the floor became walls, and the windows smashed to let the freezing waters of the channel in.

“I tried to get back to the VHF radio but I was unable to. I was thrown across the bridge and I must have blacked out. The next thing I knew I was floating. I was held up by my bridge coat. It was getting dark. The first and second officers and the chief officer were there.”

Simon Osborne, in the duty free shop, recalled:

“Very suddenly there was a jolt and the woman turned around, kinda stared at me and started screaming… I was sliding down, it was as if, literally, the world had been turned upside down… I was standing rooted to the spot and staring, there’s a wall of white water coming towards me, and I thought then, you’re gonna die. Ship’s sinking and you’re gonna die.”

Source: Unsplash

Lynette Carvley was sitting with her family and wheelchair-bound Nora Woodhouse in the cafeteria.

“The ferry listed suddenly and very briefly and everything fell off the tables and wheelchairs began to move. There was this poor old lady hurtling down the aisle in her wheelchair. My mum got up and put out her arm to try to stop her but the force just carried both of them down through a glass wall where the water was gushing in. She was whisked away. She disappeared in this great mass of water…

I remember holding onto the table. It took every ounce of strength and more, as things were being sucked out and flying through the air at a speed of what seemed to be hundreds of miles an hour. We were trapped under the glass partitioning, which then became the roof of the cafeteria. The water was filling up, I can’t swim but I didn’t start to panic. I was trying to hold on to something metal at the side of me, and push myself out of the rising water. I went under the water for what seemed ages, but my daughter Rebecca pulled me up, as she was a good swimmer.”

In less time than it takes to tell, everything aboard the ferry became chaos. Windows on the port, or left hand, side of the ship smashed open and allowed the water to rush in, while corridors crossing the ship became steep shafts. Furniture, bottles, glasses and other loose items went flying; anyone who hadn’t been injured by falling was almost certain to be wounded by this shrapnel.

The Bennetts clung together in the freezing water; Michael held onto his wife, desperate to keep her head above water.

“I had Maureen, my hand on her bra, on her clothes, holding on tight to her, and that’s the only way I could keep hold of her until that water settled down, otherwise she would have been gone.”

Elsewhere on the ship, daughter Theresa was also floating in the water.

“You could feel people holding on to your coat, holding on to your trousers and literally trying to climb over you. One of the worst things is, you’ve got someone holding on to you and all of a sudden it’s gone.”

She also remembered how equipment that was supposed to save them made survival more difficult:

“The lifejackets came down from above us as if a cupboard or something had opened suddenly. Ironically there were so many lifejackets that many people were having even more difficulty trying to find space to move. It does seem that the lifejackets in these circumstances gave added difficulties. Everyone was tangled up in the straps.”

Her fiance Mark was pushed underwater by the lifejackets but did manage to resurface. Another passenger, who said his name was Robert O’Neill, kept Mark and Theresa calm.

Stan Mason had been in one of the lounges with his family when they were thrown out of their seats.

“I remember hitting a table on the way down, but because I was holding on to Kerry, I just clasped her tightly to me instinctively.”

He heard Cath screaming “My baby!” as the lights went out. It would be the last time he heard his wife’s voice. Holding baby Kerry’s romper suit between his teeth, he climbed up across the tables and chairs, which were bolted to the floor and now formed a makeshift ladder. On a ledge, he joined a group of people perched above the water, shivering from the cold.

A glass partition in the cafeteria abruptly became a deadly barrier to escape. Michael Reynolds, who was trapped there, remembered:

“There was no more than eighteen inches of air, and I remember thinking, if we go any deeper then, you know, that is it.”

Another passenger banged his fists on the glass, and desperately tried to punch his way through it. He dislocated all the fingers in his right hand.

Fortunately, the Herald of Free Enterprise settled onto a sandbar, coming to rest on her side instead of completely turning turtle. The water was, for now, not going to rise any further. That did not, however, mean that the danger was over. For those who had survived, the freezing water put a time limit on their escape. The temperature that evening was about -5°C, or about 23°F, and being thrown into such cold water would quickly put people at risk of hypothermia. If they didn’t escape soon, they would pass out and die. 

Simon Osborne remembered this happening around him.

“There were these people shouting, screaming, and then as time went on, it became less and less.”

Source: Unsplash

Irishman William Cardwell recalled the limits of his attempts to help.

“We were all in the water, fighting for our lives and there were two girls aged about 20 near me. One of them slipped under, came back, then slipped under again and was floating face downwards; she was just lying in the water and couldn’t understand my instructions. I tried my best to reach her but it was impossible. We couldn’t do anything for her. She was quickly gone. The other girl went hysterical when she saw she’d gone but we managed to grab her and push her out into an alleyway near the purser’s office… it was a horrible black freezing nightmare. We could see a woman in the middle, a way off, and we all saw her just sink and drown. There was nothing we could do about it. We felt so helpless.”

Outside the Herald, the alarm had been raised quickly, even though the ferry herself had not been able to broadcast a Mayday signal. A dredger ship called Sanderus had seen that the ferry was in difficulties, and watched her keel over. They immediately called Zeebrugge Harbour. There, authorities were able to go into action immediately. The first rescue boat left Zeebrugge harbour just three minutes later, while a summons went out to all available craft from around the area to respond to the emergency. Helicopters were scrambled, and the leaders of rescue organisations from the police and fire brigade to the hospitals, ambulance service and volunteer forces were called together to take charge of the rescue operation. Meanwhile, the Sanderus rushed to the Herald’s side, ready to render whatever aid they could.

Survivors from the Herald’s crew were amongst the first rescuers. Bosun Terry Ayling made his way to the bridge, where he found Able Seaman Tony Down and Quartermaster Tom Wilson. They were able to throw a line down to haul out Captain Lewry, Chief Officer Leslie Sabel and Second Officer Paul Morter. A flare was retrieved from a lifeboat, which they used to signal the incoming tugboats. Then, they grabbed hammers, axes and ropes from the lifeboats and went in search of survivors. A few had been fortunate enough to be on the starboard deck when the ship went over, and had only needed to climb over onto the exposed hull – but the vast majority were trapped inside.

Ayling said later, “What I will never forget is having to walk on the windows. It was like a scene out of a horror film, set in an asylum. We were walking on people’s faces and fists hammering at the windows.”

They signalled for those people to move aside, so that they could smash the windows without showering them in broken glass, and set to work.

When rescuers reached Michael Bennett and his wife, they had been in the water for about half an hour. Nevertheless, Bennett put others first.

“Ropes were let down and when I managed to grab the first one I tied it round my wife, the next one around the nurse who was still beside us and finally I had myself hoisted up.”

The small group of survivors that Stan Mason had joined passed four-month old Kerry between them, taking it in turns to try and keep the baby warm until rescuers reached them. When they were finally located, Kerry was pulled out first, but Stan waited until everyone else was out before he was winched to safety.

Rosina Summerfield and her friend had been down to the vehicle deck to collect things from their car; when the ferry capsized, they had just got back into the corridor, leaving them trapped in a stairwell.

“We saw flashes of light above us, which had to be helicopters. There was a commotion above us and we screamed and screamed to get someone’s attention. The glass was broken on top of us and a rush of cold air came in. A little wooden ladder was lowered to a ledge above us and we had to climb up to the next level. I seemed to vault up leaving poor Julie behind. She was quite small and couldn’t reach. All I wanted to do was get out, under any circumstances. She was calling me and I hesitated to turn around and help her. It’s something that I have never forgiven myself for. She would have been fine but at this stage I didn’t know that…

The lights from the helicopters and boats were so bright, like a film set. I always remember a big stack of lifejackets on the side of the ship, then along came a helicopter and blew them all into the sea. I ran along the ship looking into every porthole and window, screaming for Kevin and Ryan. I was terrified that they had drowned. Running towards me was a total stranger carrying two very young children, one of which was my four year old. I stopped him and he told me to get into a fishing trawler. The air was bitter and Ryan was hysterically screaming. I got into the trawler and went downstairs with so many other people. The captain gave me his coat and I wrapped it around Ryan as he was soaking wet and half-dressed. I didn’t know what was wrong with him and he just wouldn’t be consoled. It turned out that his father had fallen the full width of the ship with him and would not let his hand go. This saved his life but also dislocated his arm. Sitting the trawler with a child that I couldn’t help was probably one of the worst moments.”

Amidst the chaos, there were notable moments of heroism. Andrew Parker, a 6ft 4inches tall bank worker from South London, turned himself into a human bridge to allow more than twenty people to cross a vertical shaft that had once been a corridor, bracing his hands and feet on two metal bars. His wife Eleanor was first across.

“Andrew has a very large frame and he started shouting at me to step on his back and jump to the other side. But the rails were wobbly and I was worried that we would go down together and both die. He wouldn’t let me say no. I felt as though I had to do it because there were so many people waiting. If it failed the rest would be left behind for good.”

Parker and his wife were separated in the rescue, largely because he had remained bridging that gap for half an hour, and it would be almost twenty four hours before they were reunited.

Brian Bunker was part of a small group on the upturned hull of the ferry, working to pull survivors from inside the ferry. When official rescuers told them to leave, he responded with an expletive.”Take the women and children but we need the men to stay and help.” He remained on the hull for nearly four hours, before finally retreating to safety.

Within fifteen minutes of the first distress call, there were 35 ambulances lined up on the harbourside, and Red Cross workers armed with blankets awaited the survivors. The ambulances were directed to take the injured to a number of different hospitals in the area, by rotation, to try to ensure that no single emergency centre became overwhelmed. Provincial Governor Oliver Vanneste, one of the leaders of the rescue operation, spoke about some of the emergency arrangements that had to be made that night.

“It was our decision, on medical advice, that in such temperatures, no one must be on the quay for more than sixty seconds. We had thirty-five ambulances and two mobile medical units. But what of those unhurt? There were such numbers, more than in our plan. I sent the police to the railway station to turn the passengers off the city buses and send them to the dock. It was drastic but I don’t think the people of Zeebrugge will complain.”

Far from complaining, the people of Zeebrugge responded generously; crisis centres received many calls from locals offering clothing for the survivors, while many hotels offered their beds for free – and even collected survivors in their own cars. Some owners of fishing boats and private launches who joined the rescue took the survivors they collected to their own homes to get them warm and dry.

About an hour after the Herald capsized, the first rescue divers entered the ship, risking their own lives amongst the debris to search for survivors. Gie Couwenbergh, a Navy lieutenant, was among the first, lowered into the remains of the cafeteria through a broken window. There was only enough room for one diver to work there, and he was quickly surrounded by survivors. One by one, he tied a rope lasso-style around them so they could be pulled out.

Another rescue diver, Piet Lagast later said:

“With the lights, we saw that the people in the water were moving. We also saw people in the water who were motionless, who had probably died, but we went for the people who were moving, who put up their arms or called, because you know these people are still alive.”

Amongst those he pulled from the water was 14-year-old Nicola Simpson. She had spent two and a half hours in the water next to her mother’s body.

“Three times I lifted Nicola Simpson out, and twice she slipped from me at the last moment. The third time I had to push her, step by step, up the ladder before me to make sure that she wouldn’t fall back in the water again.”

She was evacuated by helicopter, but at that point was clinically dead. Through remarkable fortune, and the hard work of the medical staff involved, she was resuscitated, and was later reunited with her father.

Volkmar Asboe, a German Navy diver, reached the Herald two hours after its capsize.

“It was a horrible vision, very dark, and you could see bodies of women and children floating past in the middle of the… bottles and cigarettes from the duty-free shop. I think it happened too fast for anyone to do anything. I hope I never see anything like this again. I saw the cars in the holds, piled up like children’s toys. There was a lot of fuel about so we did not go in there because it was too dangerous.”

Despite the growing darkness and the rising tide, the rescue effort went on long into the night. Almost seven hours after the Herald capsized, the last three survivors – Brian Gibbons, Jock Calderwood and Roger Broomfield, truck drivers who had been trapped in one of the cabins on H Deck – were located and winched up to safety. 

Belgian diver George Decock recalled the scene shortly after this rescue was made, as it became clear that there was little likelihood of finding anyone else alive.

“There were bodies everywhere, I counted at least seven. There must be dozens down there… there was blood all over the cabin walls. The people inside had fallen on top of each other and were crushed as their bodies were pressed against the sides of the cabins. You couldn’t see more than an inch in front of your face. We had to use torches and felt our way round. We had been tapping on the bulkhead to listen for any response but there has been none so far… all the bodies I saw were of young people in their twenties. One of them had obviously tried to swim as the water level rose but he had nothing to grab hold of on the wall to support himself. Exhausted, he just slipped under the water and drowned.”

Recovery operations continued through until Saturday night, although all they found was bodies. Eventually, deteriorating weather meant that the search had to be called off. The remaining bodies would not be retrieved until the weather allowed salvage operations to begin.

The Herald after being salvaged. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Reporters from all the major British news outlets had arrived on the scene quickly – some had even made their way onto the Herald’s hull while the rescue was still going on. Others clamoured for information from survivors as they reached various shelters. Rosina Summerfield, desperately trying to find a phone to call her mother back in England, made her way to the telephone exchange at St Jan’s Hospital.

“I found the room and there was a very upset receptionist trying to manage the phones when so many people were ringing for information. She said that there were no lines available because all of our press had blocked the lines ringing in. She said, “Please, can you talk to them.” So I answered one call that happened to be from the BBC. I begged the man to ring my mother and tell her we were OK and explained that it was urgent as she had recently had a stroke. He took the number and said he would, but only if I told him what had happened.”

Audibly upset, she told reporter James Robins what she remembered of the wreck. She didn’t know that it would be broadcast on the news. Her mother saw the report, and heard Rosina’s account, before she received a call. 

Many of the families of both survivors and victims learned of the disaster in the same way. They turned to the ferry’s operators, Townsend Thoresen, for information, but in many cases this was either unavailable or, worse, wrong. The family of crew member Ian Lawson were initially told that he was alive and in hospital; later they were informed that he was in fact missing, although his name at that point still appeared on updated lists of survivors. His mother-in-law said it was “like being on a seesaw that you can’t get off.” 

Tracy Edwards, whose mother, father, grandmother, sister and baby nephew had been onboard the Herald, recalled the wait for news at Townsend Thoresen’s offices. At one point, members of the press had followed her into the toilet. 

“They even put a microphone boom, which looked like a foot long grey fluffy brush, under the door. So I pulled it and shoved it down the loo.”

When the waiting families asked for a television, one was provided, along with a selection of videos. Tracy particularly remembered the family’s reaction when they found that the 1972 disaster movie “The Poseidon Adventure” was amongst them: “I remember relatives fighting over who was going to jump on it and destroy it.”

Her father, George Lamy, returned to England on Sunday the 8th of March; his wife, mother and grandson were confirmed dead, and his daughter Kim was at that time still missing. Her body would not be found until the ferry was raised.

There was also confusion in Belgium, as many of the survivors had been separated from loved ones, either during the wreck itself or during the rescue. The lack of a complete passenger list to work from made it even more difficult to reunite families and identify the dead.

Michael and Maureen Bennett were interviewed as they lay side by side in hospital beds. As Maureen spoke to reporters, in front of the television cameras, a chaplain entered, leaning forward to speak quietly to Maureen. “I have good news, I just heard that she’s alive.”

Theresa’s fiance Mark was also rescued; she later told the TV documentary series “Seconds From Disaster”, “There wasn’t many families where all of them went and all of them came back so we are really lucky to be alive.” 

In total, the disaster killed 193 people. The youngest was just 23 days old.

On the day afterwards, Townsend Thoresen’s deputy chief public relations officer, Paul Ovington, said:

“We don’t know the cause of the accident. We are holding our own investigation, but it will be for the official Department of Transport inquiry to establish the reason.”

However, for those on the scene, there was already a very large and obvious clue as to the cause. As the Herald of Free Enterprise lay half-submerged on her side the bow doors were clearly wide open. An ITN special report said:

“One rescue worker has told ITN that he believes the loading door at the front of the ship was left open last night, allowing water to pour into the car deck. He said that at dawn this morning, the door was still open… Roll on roll off car ferries are built for fast turnarounds on both sides of the channel, so the vast doors in the bow are constantly opening and closing. It’s not unusual for the doors to be open immediately before or after docking, and reports from the scene now indicate that the doors were indeed open as the ship capsized.”

Several of the survivors were able to confirm this. Jock Calderwood, one of the last survivors rescued, had also been one of the last to board. By the time he left the cab of his truck, the ship was already underway.

“The doors were wide open. The ship was reversing out and I could see the whole of the harbour through the doors… I left the freight deck and didn’t think anything of it. I’ve seen the doors open like that umpteen times.”

Rosina Summerfield had also seen the doors open when she and her friend returned to their car, which was near the ferry doors.

“I remember being fascinated by the fact that the water was the same level as the floor and it was like a massive infinity pool.”

When the crew finished loading the vehicles onto the Herald, the duty of closing the bow doors fell to Assistant Bosun Mark Stanley. However, when the ship left Zeebrugge harbour, Stanley was in his cabin – asleep. He had only intended to take a short rest, but had slept through the call to harbour stations.

The official report said:

“From the outset Mr. Mark Victor Stanley, who was the assistant bosun, has accepted that it was his duty to close the bow doors at the time of departure from Zeebrugge and that he failed to carry out this duty.

Mr. Stanley had opened the bow doors on arrival in Zeebrugge. Thereafter he was engaged in supervising members of the crew in maintenance and cleaning the ship until he was released from work by the bosun, Mr. Ayling. Mr. Stanley then went to his cabin, where he fell asleep and was not awakened by the call “Harbour Stations”, which was given over the Tannoy address system. He remained asleep on his bunk until he was thrown out of it when the HERALD began to capsize. Mr. Stanley has frankly recognised his failure to turn up for duty and he will, no doubt, suffer remorse for a long time to come. If the Company regards it as appropriate or necessary to take disciplinary action against Mr. Stanley it has power to do so under the Code of Conduct for the Merchant Navy.

In fairness to Mr. Stanley it is right to record that after the HERALD capsized he found his way out of the ship on to her hull where he set about rescuing passengers trapped inside. He broke a window for access and, when he was scooping the glass away his right forearm was deeply cut. Nevertheless he re-entered the hull and went into the water to assist passengers. He continued until he was overcome by cold and bleeding.”  

Bosun Terry Ayling told the court that he thought he was the last crewmember on the vehicle deck. He had put a chain across the bow doors but didn’t close them, even though Stanley was not there to do so. He said later, “It has never been part of my duties to close the doors or make sure anybody is there to close the doors.”

Chief Officer Leslie Sabel was supposed to supervise the closing of the bow doors. However, as chief officer, he also had to be on the bridge for departure. In effect, he was expected to be in two places at once, which was obviously impossible. In later testimony, he said that he thought he had seen Stanley at his post when he left for the bridge – or at least, he had seen a crewmember in the vicinity of the doors.

At the top of the hierarchy, the captain was responsible for everything that happened on the ferry, but he had no way of checking whether the bow doors were shut or not from his position on the bridge. He couldn’t see them easily because of the design of the ship. There were no indicators to confirm their position. He simply trusted that it had been done.

He may even have been excused for thinking that it wasn’t such a big issue if they hadn’t been closed, because astonishingly this was not the first time this had happened. Four years earlier, the Herald’s sister ship, the Pride of Free Enterprise, had left Dover with her bow doors open – also because the assistant bosun had been asleep – and she had sailed all the way to Zeebrugge in that state.

So, how had the Pride of Free Enterprise survived that incident, when the Herald had not?

One of the key factors was the harbour of departure. The Herald usually made the crossing from Dover to Calais, not Zeebrugge. This became important because the ramp at Zeebrugge was not actually long enough to reach E Deck, the upper vehicle deck. In order to safely get vehicles up there, the ship had to sit lower in the water so that the ramp could reach. The captain had ordered the Herald’s ballast tanks to be filled in order to achieve this. Emptying them again would take at least an hour and a half – time that was not available before departure. When she left, therefore, the ferry was still sitting lower in the water than usual. 

This was not the only factor, though. The ballast tanks only lowered the ship a little way, and the doors were normally ten or eleven feet above sea level. 

A second factor was the relative shallowness of Zeebrugge harbour. When a ship moves through shallow water, a hydrodynamic phenomenon called the “squat effect” causes the hull to pull towards the sea bed. These two factors combined brought the clearance between the sea level and the bow doors down to as little as 4.9 feet, or 1.5 metres.

To explore these effects, a full scale experiment was conducted using the Pride of Free Enterprise, which was built to the same design as her sister ship. Under conditions as close to the day of the accident as possible, she took the same course out of Zeebrugge Harbour, with cameras fixed on her bow to see exactly what happened. Obviously, in this experiment, the bow doors were actually closed – nobody wanted to sink another ship.

At first, the top of the bow wave crested well below the bow doors, but when the Pride accelerated at the mouth of the harbour, just as the Herald had done, there was a sudden step change. The bow wave suddenly crested as much as four metres high. Testimony given by the officers of the ship to the inquiry stated that, when they left Zeebrugge, they would normally slow down if the bow wave was cresting too high, but it was obvious that, on this occasion at least, they hadn’t. Perhaps this was because of those precious few minutes that they were running late. Whatever the reason for it, the Pride experiment made it clear that the increase in speed was the final nail in almost two hundred coffins – the final factor in allowing a huge amount of water onto the Herald of Free Enterprise.

However, even this isn’t the end of the explanation, because it wasn’t simply the fact that there was a lot of water on the ship that caused all those deaths. The way that water behaved was also key.

Because the vehicle deck had been designed to allow passengers to drive straight on at one port, and straight off at the other, it was one huge space, all the way through the ship. That meant that the water could flood this space and act as one mass.

As it left the harbour, the Herald made a turn to starboard, which caused her to heel, or lean over, slightly. This is perfectly normal. However, that meant that all the water now on the vehicle deck rushed over to that side of the ship. This added force would make it heel more than expected. 

As you’ll know if you’ve ever carried a bowl of water, it doesn’t simply move to one side and stay there – it sloshes back and forth. The force of the water sloshing back made the ship tilt to the port – this would have been the list which elicited cheers from the bar – momentarily right itself and then topple completely over onto its port side.

At this point, the shallow water around Zeebrugge came into play once more, this time in a more positive manner, because the Herald settled onto a sandbar instead of turning any further. 

Understanding the role this phenomenon, called the free surface effect, played in the sinking of the Herald allowed design changes to be made to the Pride and the Spirit of Free Enterprise, and to other ships. By adding dividers to the vehicle decks – even moveable ones that still allowed passengers to drive straight through – the free surface effect would be reduced, as flooding would not be able to spread through the entire deck as quickly. Adding vents to the side of the deck would also allow water to run off at the sides. Although these improvements would not completely prevent flooding, they would slow it, and that added time would make any similar incident more survivable. 

More importantly, to prevent the initial cause of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster from occurring again, the inquiry stated that all such ships should have indicator lights fitted on the bridge to show whether the bow doors were in the closed position, as well as recommending CCTV to allow the bridge crew to make visual inspections without leaving their stations. 

There were also recommendations to tackle various issues encountered in the rescue operation; the lack of emergency lighting, the difficulties passengers had in putting on lifejackets, the fact that many people were trapped behind toughened glass windows that had to be broken before they could escape. 

While the inquiry laid much of the responsibility on the Captain and Chief Officer – both of whom had their certificates suspended – they felt that the failures went much deeper than that.

“a full investigation into the circumstances of the disaster leads inexorably to the conclusion that the underlying or cardinal faults lay higher up in the Company. The Board of Directors did not appreciate their responsibility for the safe management of their ships. They did not apply their minds to the question: What orders should be given for the safety of our ships? The directors did not have any proper comprehension of what their duties were. There appears to have been a lack of thought about the way in which the HERALD ought to have been organised for the Dover/Zeebrugge run. All concerned in management, from the members of the Board of Directors down to the junior superintendents, were guilty of fault in that all must be regarded as sharing responsibility for the failure of management. From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness.”

This led to criminal charges;  P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd, who had acquired Townsend Thoresen in 1987, was charged with corporate manslaughter, and manslaughter charges were also laid against three directors, Captain Lewry and the senior master Captain John Kirby, Chief Officer Sabel and Assistant Bosun Mark Stanley.

However, the prosecutors dropped the charges against Stanley and Sabel, and the judge acquitted all the others on the basis that the charges had not been proven.

The Townsend Thoresen brand name was quickly phased out after the disaster, with services using the name P&O European Ferries instead, and the formal investigation report did note that, “It is apparent that the new top management has taken to heart the gravity of this catastrophe and the Company has shown a determination to put its house in order.”

The Pride of Free Enterprise was renamed Pride of Bruges, and the Spirit of Free Enterprise was renamed Pride of Kent; both remained in service for many years afterwards.

The Herald herself was raised for salvage, but ultimately scrapped the following year. 

Fourteen gallantry awards were given to crew members, rescuers, and “human bridge” Andrew Parker. A permanent memorial to those lost in the disaster is located in St Mary’s Church, Dover.


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Sources, References and Further Reading

Books:

Online:

Report of the formal investigation into the Herald’s sinking (PDF)

Wikipedia article on the Herald of Free Enterprise

A list of the passengers and crew killed in the disaster. (PDF)

Blog post by researcher Nick Metcalfe on the 30th anniversary of the Herald’s sinking

Zeebrugge ferry disaster, 30 years on: Deadly failings behind one of UK’s worst peacetime maritime tragedies – The Independent

Video

Seconds From Disaster – Season 2, Episode 5

James Nesbitt’s Disasters That Changed Britain – Episode 2

March 6, 1987 – Film by Pim Korver on the salvage of the Herald. (Youtube)

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