Herald of Free Enterprise Ferry Disaster
The 6th of March 1987 AD
Within minutes of leaving Zeebrugge harbour bound for Dover in the early evening of March 6 1987 the roll-on-roll-off ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized, plunging many of those on board into the near icy waters of the North Sea. This was the worst British peacetime disaster at sea in almost 70 years, the final death toll 193.
The bow doors of the ship had not been closed, allowing water to pour into the open car deck, and when the ship turned she lost stability and rolled over.
Subsequent enquiries found that the seaman who was supposed to close the doors was away from his post at the time the ship left port; and another more senior figure who should have stayed to ascertain that this had been done had in fact because of time pressure gone back to the bridge. The Captain on the bridge had no device to alert him that the doors remained open.
This omission alone would not have been disastrous had other circumstances not come into play: because of high spring tides the bows had been lowered to allow connection to the shore, and the ballast water used to effect this had not been pumped out by the time the ship was underway. The shallowness of the water on the ships early route increased the height of the bow wave, which reached the critical height allowing water to seep through the open doors when the ship reached 18 knots, as it rapidly did that night.
The deaths were mainly due to hypothermia, as the water in which victims found themselves was just 3 degrees centigrade. The rapidity of the capsizing meant no SOS was sent; and the electric systems on the ship, including the emergency back-up, were instantly wrecked by the ingress of the water, so there was a delay in organising a rescue attempt.
There was a major public outcry about the disaster, fuelled in part by The Sun newspaper – many of the passengers were taking advantage of a cheap offer provided through the paper for a day trip to Belgium. In a ground breaking case senior figures within the operating company, which was accused of “a disease of sloppiness” at every level, were taken to court to face corporate manslaughter charges. The case collapsed, but it had sent a warning to those at the top of companies that they could be called to account for corporate failings that led to loss of life.
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