The Zeebrugge disaster

The Herald of Free Enterprise was one of two English cross-channel ferries belonging to the Townsend Thoresen Line, a subsidiary of the P&O Line. She usually worked the route from Dover to Calais in France, but on 5 March 1987 she was doing the run from Dover to Zeebrugge in Belgium. She was carrying just half of the 1,200 passengers she was capable of, many of them on day excursions. However, on her return she picked up an extra 100 British servicemen going on leave, many travelling with their families.

The Herald of Free Enterprise was a front-loading ship, meaning that she had doors at the bow to allow vehicles to drive on to her car deck. To adjust the height of the car deck and ramp in relation to the loading dock on shore, the ship had huge ballast tanks that could be flooded or emptied of water.

On this particular day, the bow sank low in the water after a number of cars and heavy lorries had been loaded. However, for some unexplained reason no ballast water was pumped out to counteract this. Even before the ship left the dock she had a bow-down attitude, which probably contributed to the suddenness of the subsequent disaster.

Image, The Spirit of Free Enterprise, in happier times.
The Spirit of Free Enterprise, in happier times

At first glance the harbour of Zeebrugge appears to be quite large. This is deceptive as much of the harbour is silted up leaving only one-quarter of it navigable. The vessels entering and leaving the inner harbour are obliged to navigate in dredged channels. When leaving her berth, the Herald of Free Enterprise was obliged to go astern and put her rear into a small basin in order to turn into the designated channel. Ten minutes later she was heading out towards the open sea.

Only five minutes after that she veered sharply to the right, out of the dredged channel, and turned right over on her port side. She was only prevented from sinking right under by the fact that she was resting on a mud bank. The terror inside the ship can only be imagined as the holidaying passengers were tipped without the slightest warning into a pile of tangled bodies, furniture and broken crockery. Then the lights went out and the sea rushed in. Many people were drowned right then, trapped beneath a mound of thrashing, fighting humanity. Those who had gone below – especially those on the port side – stood no chance at all. Many of those on the open upper deck were no luckier. Flung suddenly into the icy water they either drowned or died quickly of shock.

The capsize was so sudden that no lifeboats were lowered. No-one had time to put on a lifejacket, and even those in the water were unable to put on the ones thrown overboard to them because of the paralyzing cold. The crew behaved well after the initial shock, breaking the cafeteria windows on the uppermost side of the ship and lowering down ropes so that the trapped passengers could be pulled to safety. The cross passages of the ship had become vertical shafts that were almost impossible to get out of. Many died in sight of doors that they were unable to reach.

Just 15 minutes after the capsize a rescue helicopter was on its way from the UK. Another followed shortly afterwards with Royal Navy divers on board. There were also a number of naval vessels, five civilian helicopters and a whole fleet of small boats around the ship. The response was quick, but it was still too late. A total of 188 people lost their lives that day, most of them dying during the capsize or very shortly after, before anyone ashore was even aware there was a problem. The Master, Captain David Lewry, was flung across the width of the bridge and injured his ribs and a lung. In great pain he tried to carry on, but was eventually persuaded to be taken ashore to hospital.

The divers from the British Navy were obliged to feel around in the icy black water to find bodies. One diver found the body of a young girl still cradling her dolly in her arms. Another diver found a couple with their arms around each other, locked in what appeared to be a tender farewell embrace. Many of the dead were in locked passenger cabins in the submerged port side and could not be reached until the ship was righted with a giant floating crane. The whole salvage operation took exactly one month.

Image, The ship at first light, partially submerged on her starboard side.
The ship at first light, partially submerged on her side.

The resulting court of enquiry started in London before Mr Justice Sheen, the Commissioner of Wrecks. The council for the Ministry of Transport, Mr David Steel QC, outlined a sorry tale of poor management, lack of proper accountability, poor operational procedures and general sloppiness. It transpired that the front vehicle doors had been left open as the ship proceeded to sea. As she built up speed, the bow-down angle of the ship had allowed water to flood into the car deck, a huge open space with no transverse bulkheads or walls. The thousands of tons of seawater slopped from fore to aft and side-to-side, providing both the weight and momentum to capsize the ship. The only thing that stopped the ship from rolling right over and killing everyone aboard was that she had veered onto the mud bank.

It seems incredible that there was no mechanical or electronic system fitted to the ship to allow the bridge officers to know for sure that the bow doors were closed. Various captains had put reports forward to the management, requesting either indicator lights or a CCTV system, but these reports had been either refused or ignored. Instead, the assistant bosun was responsible for ensuring the doors were closed. On the day of the disaster he had been given other duties by the bosun and then dismissed. He had gone to his cabin and fallen asleep.

The chief officer, Mr Sable, was in overall charge of the car deck but he said it was not the custom to inform the captain that the doors were shut. It came out in the enquiry that the Herald of Free Enterprise’s sister ship had once gone to sea for four hours with her bow doors open without sinking. The critical factor in the disaster was the fact that the bow was low in the water due to the omission of pumping out forward ballast water. Tests later showed that under normal conditions the ship’s bow wave would not be high enough to enter the car deck until the ship had reached a speed of 15 knots (30 kilometres an hour.) With the bow angled downwards, that could occur at a much slower speed.

On the second day of the enquiry, the council of the shipping line announced that the company took full responsibility for the accident and would pay compensation. There was some talk that criminal proceedings would be instigated against certain members of the crew or management, but in the end that did not eventuate. The people who lost their lives, the enquiry concluded, did not die as the result of one person’s mistake. Instead, they were the victims of a series of small errors that could have been avoided had the correct systems been in place.


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