Today is going to be a fairly short one; it was an event that remains within recent living memory for most of us, over a certain age. And it focuses on a tragedy that resonates deeply with me personally to this day. As a teenager, I traveled several times on the cross-channel ferries between England and France and Belgium in my ongoing research of the Great War, as a young amateur Historian. (It was on those journeys that I got to know Phoebe.) Those journeys were for the most part made on the three specially built Spirit-Class vessels that operated between the home ports and those of mainland Europe. I was never a great sea dog, being blessed with both severe motion sickness and a nausea-inducing terror of the sea and all that goes with it from a seemingly insignificant incident at the age of four when I was startled by something at the beach whilst paddling in the sea with my family, causing me to run away from them, then believing them all to be drowned, when they failed to return. Anyway, one such journey I remember well, was in early 1987. Just two weeks later, that journey returned to haunt me, as the very ship I traveled on, was lost in the worst peacetime maritime disaster since 1919 when the Royal Navy yacht Iolaire sank off Stornaway with the loss of 205 men.
The Herald of Free Enterprise was one of three identical “roll-on/roll off” ferries commissioned by owners Townsend Thoresen, built by Schichau-Unterweser in Bremerhaven, Germany. Branded as the ‘Spirit class’ the ferries were 8 decks, including two vehicle decks, and were designed specifically with the Dover-Calais route in mind. The twin loading doors located at the bow and stern, were capable of aligning with the berth ramps at both ports, to enable quick on-and off-loading. Each ship weighed around 13000 tons and were capable of carrying 1400 passengers. Their safety enhancements, lifeboats and so on, were more than adequate quantity for the maximum passenger numbers.
The layout of the ship, basically allowed for crew areas on decks A and B at the top of the ship. Deck C was the passenger area, comprising lounges, bathroom facilities and restaurant, and complete with access to outer areas which also provided seating. Decks D through G were various fixed and mezzanine level vehicle decks, most particularly decks E and G, which were contiguous open plan drive in decks, accessed via watertight and weatherproof doors at the bow and open portal style stern ends. Each set of doors was constructed differently, by reason of the required movement limitations. Deck H underneath the main car deck on G, provided passenger berths. The wheelhouse was located toward the rear of the ship, meaning there was no view of the front of the vessel.
On the evening of 6th March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise was making a detour from her usual run, travelling via Zeebrugge in Belgium, rather than the usual Dover-Calais route, which she had operated earlier in the day. Her crew had been working for several hours since early in the morning; being that there were five sets of Officers and three sets of other crew, it was common practice for Officers to work up to twelve hours and then receive 24 hours rest, whereas the crew would work shifts of 24 hours, with breaks, followed by 48 hours off, thus changeovers were common place and full compliments were interchangeable via rotas. A routine special offer in the Sun Newspaper enabled many passengers to take advantage of a cheap day in Belgium for only a few pounds, some going for a change of scenery, others to take advantage of the availability of “duty free” alcohol and cigarettes.
Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley had been working since early that morning, on the Dover Calais route, and his duties included ensuring areas of the ship were cleaned between transports as well as assisting with the loading and unloading of the vessel and taking care of relevant passenger enquiries. As the ferry began to load at Zeebrugge, Stanley was stood down by Boatswain Terence Ayling to take his break. He returned to his berth and went to sleep. Zeebrugge runs were longer than the Dover-Calais by around double the time, at four and a half hours. Due to the extended period of the voyage, it was felt officers had ample time for rest, and as a result, there were generally only two Deck Officers and a Master on these runs.
Another difference about this run was the loading ramps at Zeebrugge, which were considerably lower than those at Dover and Calais and single ramps, rather than the twin ramps at the other ports, meaning only one vehicle deck could be loaded at a time. The ferries would have to come in bow first, with front ballast tanks full, (this was achieved by opening the tanks to fill as they approached the port) to lower the front of the ferry down. The higher Deck E (complete with suspended deck D) would be filled first, then the ballast would begin be pumped, raising the trim to enable the lower Deck G to be filled. As a result loading took longer than elsewhere. At a few minutes to seven that evening, the “harbour stations” call went out over the tannoy. This was to give notice to the crew to attend their stations, ready for sailing. Critically, Mark Stanley slept through this call, and so was not at his post, to close the bow doors, prior to voyage.
Personal tension between Chief Officer Leslie Sabel and Second Officer Paul Morter meant a breakdown in understanding, when Mr Morter reported to G Deck to take over the loading duties from Sabel, enabling him to take his own post on the crew deck, instead Sabel stayed on G deck for a further period, before leaving. In the later enquiry both men posed different recollections of the minutes prior to sailing, and their respective duties and actions. After leaving, it would appear Sabel returned to the car deck and relieved Morter of loading duties, instructing him to report to his station.
At five minutes past 6pm and running a few minutes behind schedule, the Herald of Free Enterprise reversed slowly out of her berth, turning to face bow forward, and made her way through inner harbour towards the outer harbour entrance. At 6.22 she passed through the entrance to the outer harbour and just a few seconds later she listed around 30 degrees to port side, before righting herself briefly then, after performing a sudden turn to starboard, keeled over and sank, in the shallow waters of a sandbank. The Herald of Free Enterprise, devoid of consistent procedures, and with a somewhat uncommunicative crew, had set sail with ballast tanks still partially full, meaning she was lower in the water than she ought to have been, and crucially, her bow doors remained open. As she had quickly gained speed once away from the enclosed harbour, her bow had dipped under the waterline, and tons of water had surged through the open bow, and down through the length of the ship on Car Deck G.
As she had listed, her captain, unaware that the bow doors were wide open, had turned to port, and as luck would have it, as the ship keeled over, it came to rest on the sandbank nestled just outside of the harbour wall, with her starboard side above the water line. Had they not landed on the sandbank, they would have been quickly and completely lost in the much deeper water either side, with little chance of survival. The whole drama from first list to capsize, took just 90 seconds. The violence of the capsize threw the still sleeping Mark Stanley from his bunk. The water meanwhile hit the power supply and back-up generator, causing both to blow. The ship lost all power and plunged into darkness, as hundreds of terrified day trippers were thrown violently around into the rapidly rising water.
193 people lost their lives that night, out of the 459 passengers and 80 crew on board. Those figures included 15 teenagers, and seven children aged under 13. The youngest was just 23 days old and was one of several small children to die. A number of families lost three or four members, separated in the darkness and confusion as decks became walls and furniture became hazardous. Mark Stanley, despite his culpability in the disaster, redeemed himself somewhat when finding his way out onto the hull, broke a window and climbed back inside, rescuing several passengers before passing out from severe blood loss caused by the broken glass as he cleared his entrance into the stricken ship.
Emergency response was rapid, most notably the crew of dredger Sanderas spotted the capsized vessel just a few minutes after it went over, and raised the alarm. Zeebrugge harbour had an emergency action plan in place and tugs were quickly dispatched, which minutes later circled the Herald and began rescue attempts. Some passengers had managed to fight their way out, or had been on the outer deck as she sank, and were either in the water around the ship or waiting on the hull. Divers had been airlifted to the wreck within half an hour of the alarm being sounded, and the Belgian Navy, on exercise nearby quickly joined them. Unfortunately, the tide was rising, and this soon hampered the rescue efforts. Eventually, they had to be called off until morning. When they returned at first light, and low tide, many of the survivors trapped on board had succumbed to hypothermia and injuries and had died during the night.
Just seven weeks later, the official inquiry into the tragedy was concluded, the presiding official deeming it necessary for both the implementation of preventative measures, learned from the event, and for the victims families and survivors to achieve closure and entitlement to any due compensation for their loss. Following the result of the enquiry, a salvage operation was agreed, and the Herald was recovered and sold to a South African interest. As the ship was righted, the last remaining bodies were recovered. The Herald was towed towards her new home, causing further incident when her tow rope broke, causing her with no power, to drift before being caught, upon arrival, the new owners were unable to find a buyer for her, and she was ultimately scrapped the following year.
At the inquest, it was ruled the first case of corporate manslaughter in such a disaster. However, this verdict was successfully overturned. The senior officers involved were cautioned as to their lack of structure procedurally but three men were eventually ear-marked for their negligence in the tragedy. Leslie Sabel as Chief Officer for his failure to notify the senior officer that the Herald was setting sail without all discrepancy reports noted, including vitally not ensuring the bow doors were closed, which he was aware of before reporting to his station. Sabel claimed to have seen a crew member approach and believed it was Stanley returning to his post. Mark Stanley for failing to be at his post, when his duties included the closure of the bow doors after loading and prior to voyage, (there was special mention made however, of Stanley’s later conduct, in his rescue efforts saving the lives of several passengers) and finally Boatswain Terence Ayling. At the inquest, Ayling was asked, after standing Stanley down and taking charge of the loading, prior to setting sail, and knowing Stanley had not reported to close the doors, why did he not close the doors himself? He replied that it was not within his job remit to close the doors; it was a duty he had never been required to perform.
193 souls were lost on the basis of “it wasn’t my job…..”