6th March 1987. Ferry Disasters.
Today in 1987 a Townsend Thoresen Ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge with its bow-doors open.
About a mile out, the 7952 ton vessel capsized in shallow water, killing 193 people, many of whom were taking advantage of the Sun Newspaper’s promotion of a cheap trip to the continent.(1)
The Herald had no water-tight compartments and the Boatswain was asleep when he should have been closing the bow doors. Blame was placed on supervisors and a culture of poor communication in the company and sloppiness at all levels. Also incredibly no indicator light relating to the bow doors was in the wheelhouse.
The ferry was quickly re-branded to P&O European Ferries with the red hull repainted to navy blue to protect the Company’s image.
The later effort to lay a charge of corporate manslaughter was ruled out by a judge but at least it set a precedent which was to become legally admissible.
The disaster constituted the highest non-naval, maritime vessel death rate since that of the Iolaire in 1919.
The first major 20th century ferry disaster came on the last day of January in 1953 when the British Railways Ferry, MV Princess Victoria suffered a violent wave buffeting resulting in the bursting of the guillotine doors above the stern gates.
The water swept into the car deck, moving the cargo onto the starboard side causing the ship to list and sink with the loss of 128 lives. The sad thing was that it happened off Belfast Lough within sight of the coast.
HMS Contest sent to the incident arrived late owing to confusion about sea positions and the later Inquiry criticised the poor design of the ferry doors, but there were extenuating weather circumstances as the ship had been hit by a rare storm.
This is when violent storms emanating off western Scotland surge round the northern coast, then race down the East Coast which went on to cause devastation to East Anglia and Canvey Island.
Five years before the Herald of Free Enterprise turned over, on 19th December 1982 another Townsend Thoresen, car ferry, European Gateway, collided with another ship near Harwich, killing six people.
As with all disasters many people come out badly, but many prove to be heroes as with the wireless operator, David Broadfoot, on the Princess Victoria who stuck to his post, to be later posthumously awarded the George Cross.
(1) RORO was roll-on, roll-off operation.
bbc.co.uk/this-day-in-history.loss of Herald.
wikipedia.org/Pics of ferries.
bbc.co.uk/This day in History.first ro-ro.