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30th anniversary of Zeebrugge disaster marked

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It was a day that shocked the world. In the space of 23 minutes the lives of hundreds of people changed forever as a result of 'serious negligence' by ferry staff. KentOnline takes an in-depth look at how the tragedy unfolded and at the consequences still being felt today.

It is a time, a date, that remains etched in the memory - now 30 years on.

The Herald of Free Enterprise capsized at 6.28pm on Friday, March 6, 1987, as she left Zeebrugge Harbour in Belgium.

The Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just outside of the Zeebrugge harbour walls
The Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just outside of the Zeebrugge harbour walls

A total of 459 passengers, 80 crew, and 131 vehicles, mostly cars and lorries were on board, many taking advantage of a special offer from the Sun newspaper of £1 day trip tickets.

The ship set sail for Dover at 6.05pm in calm weather. But keeled over when the inner and outer bow doors were left fully open, allowing seawater to rush in.

A public inquiry by the Department for Transport heard the assistant bosun Mark Stanley had fallen asleep in his cabin, waking in darkness and feeling the ship tilting over.

He and other crew members tried to save the lives of passengers, others dying in the process.

Chief officer Leslie Sabel, from Canterbury, failed to make sure the doors were closed, and the master, Captain David Lewry, from Sandwich, left the port without knowing whether the doors were closed.

The final death toll came to 193 people, 38 crew and 155 passengers. The ship was left on its side, half-submerged in shallow water.


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The public inquiry opened that May and was led by Wreck Commissioner Mr Justice Sheen.

His report in July said: “The court finds that the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise was partly caused or contributed to by serious negligence in the discharge of their duties by Captain Lewry, Mr Sabel and Mr Stanley and partly caused or contributed to by the fault of Townsend Car Ferries Limited.”

Audio: Claire Clitheroe's boyfriend died in the disaster

Mr Sheen said the company had been “infected with a disease of sloppiness,” and blamed all levels of personnel from directors to the junior superintendents.

The report grimly said: “Approximately 459 passengers had embarked for the voyage to Dover, which they expected to be completed without incident in the prevailing good weather.”

An inquest at Dover Town Hall ended on October 8, 1987, with a jury giving verdicts of unlawful killing for 187 of the victims.

The jury found they had died from drowning and hypothermia. An open verdict had been given on the 188th victim, a woman who had fractured her neck in the accident and died two months later after a blood clot in her lung.

Video: Peter Legg and his crew at Dover RNLI felt helpless when tragedy struck

It was not certain if the death was direct cause of the accident.

Not all the bodies had been recovered, explaining why there had not been inquests for all 193 victims.

Aerial view of Herald of Free Enterprise - March, 1987
Aerial view of Herald of Free Enterprise - March, 1987

One victim, a baby, was returned to Germany for burial and was not subject to the inquest.

One more body, of a 57-year-old man, floated to the surface near the scene of the wreck on November 4.

A direct result of the disaster was a new era in ferry safety and technology that ensured captains could see if the bow doors were closed from the bridge.

The operating company, P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd, was brought to trial for corporate manslaughter in 1990 but the case collapsed.

But it paved the way for the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, which finally came into force in 2008.

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