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Day-trip to disaster: the Zeebrugge tragedy


It’s been 35 years since a shocking maritime disaster claimed the lives of more Britons than in any other single event since the Second World War.

Many people think that they have not heard of the Herald of Free Enterprise or the Zeebrugge disaster until they see a picture of the stricken ferry lying on its side and then the memories come flooding back: ‘Oh yes, I remember now. Terrible. They left the doors open, didn’t they?’ Well, yes they did. However, there is much more to the story than a simple, if catastrophic, oversight by a single crew member.

Throughout the 1980s, Britain endured a number of tragedies that became synonymous with the places where they happened: the mass shooting on the streets at Hungerford; the jet bombing over Lockerbie; the train crash outside Clapham Junction; the stadium fire in Bradford and the crush of football fans at Hillsborough, to name but a few. All claimed a terrible number of lives. In terms of the British number of lives lost, the ferry disaster at Zeebrugge overshadowed them all, with almost all of the 193 known victims being from the United Kingdom.

The P&O-owned Townsend Thoresen car ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise was one of three sister ships of the Blue Riband class, the flagships of the company’s fleet. The ferry was a roll-on, roll-off (RORO) type on which vehicles embarked at one end and disembarked at the opposite end. This design meant that there was a cavernous space that ran the entire length of the boat. If water was to enter any part of that space it would run freely, making the boat unstable and could threaten a possible capsize.

This is precisely what happened on the bitterly cold night of Friday 6 March 1987. The Herald, with an estimated 546 people on board, had just departed the Belgian port of Zeebrugge for its home port of Dover. Hundreds of unsuspecting passengers joined the eighty crew members for what should have been a routine four-and-a-half-hour crossing. For some, they would continue their long journey by road through the night to their destinations. Among them were families and groups of friends returning from day trips, lorry drivers transporting goods for their employers, army personnel and their families on weekend leave, some going home for good. One man was driving home a new car for a friend, three family members had shut up a house in Holland ready to be sold. Another man was travelling on a false passport and had hitched a lift with an innocent lorry driver.

A combination of procedural errors and oversights and the design of the ferry itself caused the vehicle deck to flood, after the ferry set sail with the bow doors open. The water shifted, tilting the ferry to one side, then the other before capsizing in relatively shallow water onto her port side, just outside the harbour entrance. There she lay on her side at an angle of more than ninety degrees in freezing cold water that swallowed up more than half the ferry.

The crew of a nearby dredger witnessed the capsize and immediately set in motion an international rescue operation. Co-ordinated by the Royal Navy at sea and the Belgians on land, a flotilla of ships and boats raced to the scene while hospitals sent dozens of medical personnel to assist with injured survivors.

Meanwhile, inside the half-submerged ferry, people had already been killed outright in the sudden capsize. Some were unconscious and were beginning to drown. Others found themselves trapped in the freezing water in pitch black darkness, shouting and crying for their loved ones. Those still able-bodied scrambled upwards and out of the ferry through smashed windows and joined the rescue efforts of arriving emergency services.

Ninety Seconds at Zeebrugge is an up-to-date retelling of the disaster as it unfolded primarily from the viewpoint of those that were on board, their families waiting for news, rescue workers and the people of Belgium. The disaster has never been forgotten by those involved. Although very painful at times, the survivors and their relatives’ stories are told, sometimes for the first time publicly. Much credit has to be given to them and it is for them, and the victims, that this book has been written.

By Iain Yardley

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