Zeebrugge ferry disaster, 30 years on…


Imagine free enterprise unchecked, self-reverential. Imagine a “spirit of free enterprise” that places capital above both labour and product. Then imagine a “pride of free enterprise” certain of its own merits; too careless to consult history regarding past shipping disasters; too mean to spare a fiver in order to avert catastrophe. And there – on a cold and miserable night exactly 30 years ago this weekend – we have the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Three times this ferry’s owners – owners stubbornly upholding the fiction they weren’t really the owners – were warned about open doors; on a first occasion saying nobody had ever worried about them before; on a second occasion saying they weren’t in the business of telling crew how to do their jobs as specified; on a third occasion saying they were busy, go away.

Thus it was that, early on the evening of Friday 6 March 1987, only 23 minutes into a voyage that should have been routine, and steadily gaining speed to 18 knots an hour, 193 lives were needlessly sacrificed to the frigid waters – 3C – of the English Channel. And the keeling over of Townsend Thoresen’s state-of-the-art (1980) “roll-on, roll-off” car, lorry, and foot-passenger ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise took just two minutes. And how terrifying those two minutes.
Already 20 minutes late raising anchor, the Herald was carrying 459 passengers or drivers, 80 tired crew members still to complete their second sailing in a 24-hour window, 81 cars, 47 lorries, three buses. Some lorry drivers down below were taking a shower, eating their sandwiches, resting; while several dozen day-trippers – those who’d joyfully taken advantage of a Sun newspaper offer of Belgium for £1 return – congregated in the lounge for drinks and a chat. Other passengers and crew were getting their bearings along some very long corridors leading wherever. A few “lucky” souls were out outdoors for a breather, still glancing back towards Zeebrugge. A haven of safety. If only.
Wallace Ayers, former technical director of Townsend Thoresen, who took early retirement three weeks after the sinking. Again in 2012, Mr. Ayers, then aged 73 and living in Reigate, was anxious to observe: “It my criminal trial was, as far as I’m concerned, a monstrous injustice and a monstrous waste of money. It [the Herald’s sinking] is in the past, but it’s still in the present. The Herald of Free Enterprise was well-built and it was misused. It was just one of those tragic accidents”.zeebrugge