I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A British ferry left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge heading for Dover, England. It was after dark on March 6, 1987 and The Herald of Free Enterprise headed into a choppy sea with her bow doors open.
In the early days, of cross-Channel ferries, cars were loaded onto ships by crane—a time-consuming procedure. Loading times were improved when ramps allowed vehicles to be driven into the hold.
They were called Roll-on/Roll-off Ferries—ro/ros for short. They were a boon to the ferry industry. Faster turnaround times in port meant more profits.
The Herald of Free Enterprise was one such ship operated by the Townsend Thorensen company, which was owned by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O). Herald was one of three sister ships and she entered service in May 1980 and usually ran between Dover, England and Calais, France.
Ro/ros have come in for a fair amount of criticism with the International Maritime Organization noting that “Despite its commercial success, there have been disturbing accidents involving different types of ro/ro ship . . .”
The design of many of these ro/ro vessels is such that the captain cannot see the bow and stern doors from the bridge.
In 1985, one of Townsend Thorensen's captains brought this problem to the attention of management: “Most important of all is watertight doors, meaning the bow and stern doors” he wrote. “There are no indicators for when these doors are open or closed.” He suggested installing a communication device that would confirm to the bridge that the doors were closed prior to leaving port.
Townsend Thorensen's management rejected the request to put in a simple bell connection costing about five pounds.
The Herald of Free Enterprise had eight decks and vehicles were loaded through watertight bow and stern doors. These doors were to be closed prior to departure. Also, unlike with most other ships, there were no watertight compartments the entire length of the car deck so that loading and unloading vehicles was faster—time is money.
On board that evening were 459 passengers and 80 crew members, along with three buses, 47 trucks, and 81 cars.
“An alarming number of disasters are caused by sheer greed, putting profits before people.”
— Barbara Hooks, Sydney Morning Herald
Asleep on the Job
Mark Stanley was the assistant boatswain on the Herald with responsibility for opening and closing the bow and stern doors. On arrival at Zeebrugge, he opened the doors and went to his cabin to rest as he was tired after working a long shift; he fell asleep.
Stanley did not wake up when the “Harbour Stations” call was broadcast throughout the ship.
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Boatswain Terence Ayling did not notice that Stanley had failed to report for duty and he left the car deck thinking the doors would be closed. Further up the chain of command, First Officer Leslie Sabel had also neglected his duty to check that the doors were closed.
The company provided conflicting instructions that the First Officer must be on the bridge 15 minutes prior to departure, but he also had to supervise the closing of the doors.
Townsend Thorensen's management also put a lot of pressure on crews to keep to scheduled sailings—time is money. That evening, the Herald was five minutes late, so Sabel went to his assigned station on the bridge assuming the doors were closed.
On the bridge, Captain David Lewry made the same assumption and ordered the mooring lines to be cast off.
The Sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise
With bow doors open, the Herald of Free Enterprise headed out to sea, with another factor waiting to cause havoc.
The loading ramp at Zeebrugge was not compatible with the Herald, so that the vessel had to take on ballast at its bow end to lower its ramp by three feet. It would take 90 minutes to pump out the ballast, but time is money, so the captain chose not to delay departure to get that done. The Herald left the harbour with her bow lowered and the doors open.
As the ship quickly accelerated to about 18 knots she created a bow wave that came in through the open doors. The thousands of gallons of water started sloshing across the car deck causing the vessel to list first to one side then the other. With one final crunch she capsized onto her port side.
The only stroke of luck on that terrible evening was that the Herald grounded on a shoal so that her starboard side was above water. Without the sand bar she would have turned over completely and sunk, with very little chance of anybody surviving.
This had all happened within four minutes of clearing the harbour, just over one kilometre out to sea. There was no time to send out an SOS and no time to launch life boats.
The cold (3C-37F) Channel water rushed into the passenger compartments, walls became floors and ceilings, and cross-ship gangways were turned into vertical shafts. And, everything was pitch black as the ship's electrical system shut down.
The Capsizing Explained
The plight of the Herald had been seen by a nearby dredger whose captain raised the alarm. Crew members, including Boatswain Terrence Ayling, rushed to save those trapped inside the vessel who were above the water line.
Ayling recalled “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.”
The crew were able to break the windows with axes and started to lift people out so they could stand on the ship's hull.
Within minutes helicopters arrived on scene and other boats in the area came to take survivors off the stricken boat. Seven hours after the capsizing, the last three survivors were winched to safety; now, came the grim task of recovering bodies—all 193 of them.
Assigning Blame for the Herald Disaster
The inquiry into the tragedy laid blame on the crew members whose job it was to close the watertight doors and to ensure that this was done. But, the culpability for the loss of life did not stop there.
The inquiry's report noted that “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.”
A coroner's inquest into the catastrophe handed down a verdict of “unlawful killing.” From this, three P&O directors and four crew members were charged with “corporate manslaughter.” However, the prosecution case collapsed and the presiding judge ordered the jury to acquit those charged.
- The Chairman of the Board of P&O at the time of the Herald disaster was Sir Jeffrey Sterling. In 1991, he was given a life peerage by Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He sits in the House of Lords as Baron Sterling of Plaistow.
- On September 28, 1994, the MS Estonia, a ro/ro ferry, left Tallinn, Estonia bound for Stockholm, Sweden. She ran into heavy weather and it appears her bow doors were breached. She sank in the Baltic Sea and only 138 of the 989 people aboard were rescued. There were numerous similarities between the sinking of the Estonia and that of the Herald of Free Enterprise seven years earlier.
- Many of the passengers aboard the Herald were day-trippers who had taken advantage of a promotional offer from the Sun newspaper for a £1 round trip.
- The man who failed to close the bow doors, Mark Stanley, acted heroically in saving trapped passengers but he never overcame the remorse he felt over his responsibility for the accident. His health broken, he died in his 50s.
- “Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster, 30 Years On: Deadly Failings Behind One of UK’s Worst Peacetime Maritime Tragedies.” Godfrey Holmes, The Independent, March 3, 2017.
- “Seconds from Disaster: Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster.” Barbara Hooks, Sydney Morning Herald, November 28, 2005.
- “Safety of Ro-Ro Ferries.” International Maritime Organization, undated.
- “Herald of Free Enterprise.” Kari Fay, greatdisasters.co.uk, June 5, 2020.
- “Remembering the Herald of Free Enterprise.” The Maritime Executive, March 6, 2017.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor