Thirty years ago today, in 1987 – just over a week before I was born – the Townsend Thoresen ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, in the worst peacetime maritime disaster involving a British ship in 68 years.
On 6th March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise arrived in Zeebrugge from Dover, and began taking on passengers – mostly British tourists – for the return journey. As a roll-on roll-off ferry, she took on vehicles as well, on two of her decks. Once loading was complete, the open bow doors which allowed vehicles entry were naturally supposed to be closed. Unfortunately, the crewmember who had this responsibility, assistant boatswain Mark Stanley, had gone for a nap during his scheduled break, and did not wake up when the crew were called to their stations for departure. In his absence, nobody else thought to assume the responsibility or make sure that the task had been completed – and at 7:05pm local time, the ferry departed, the captain having no way of knowing that the bow doors were still open.
At 7:24pm, as the Herald left the harbour and accelerated, a large enough wave was generated for water to start pouring into the lower car deck through the open doors. To make matters worse, the Herald was already sitting relatively low in the water, having filled her ballast tanks in port to accommodate the loading ramp and allow vehicles to drive onto the upper deck. As water sloshed around the lower deck, carrying vehicles with it, the ferry began to lurch back and forth. Less than two minutes after the crisis began, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized onto her port side and the lights quickly went out.
Hundreds of people were now trapped inside the ferry as it filled with freezing water. Fortunately, the Herald had come to rest on a sandbar and her starboard side remained above water; and as she was still relatively close to shore, rescue vessels, helicopters and divers were soon on the scene. But they couldn’t save everyone: of the 539 people onboard, 193 lost their lives.
The disaster led to many design changes to improve RORO ferry safety, including CCTV and indicators to let officers on the bridge know whether the bow doors were closed. The captain, first officer and Mark Stanley were determined to have been negligent by the investigation, as well as the ferry’s owners; the captain and first officer received suspensions. The Herald of Free Enterprise herself was righted in April 1987, and scrapped the following year.