Monday, March 23, 2020

Herald of Free Enterprise

The world has always been shocked by certain images of disaster and one that still resonates today is the image of the huge hull of a red car ferry laying on her side on the front pages of the newspapers. On Friday 6th March 1987 the Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise was loading up her passengers, cars and lorries at the Belgian port of Zeebrugge ready for the late crossing to Dover.

As the seven year old ship set sail and headed out to sea, a chain reaction of mistakes and critical events that took place that would lead to disaster. First of all the ship's bow was heavy due to a ballast tank being used to lower the ship in order for the car deck to come level with the loading ramp. Secondly the man sent to check the bow doors were closed mistakenly saw somebody else in his place (probably a lorry driver) walking towards them and assumed he had it in hand. Thirdly, the man who was actually meant to close the doors was asleep in his cabin. The fourth critical error was the ship actually proceeded to sea with these doors open and nobody on board noticed.

With just a very short distance travelled and barely out of the breakwater of the harbour, the ship lurched side to side violently. In just 45 seconds the entire car ferry was laid on her side and her passengers and crew were struggling for survival in the icy water in pitch darkness. The only thing to be thankful was the fact it had, by chance, come to grief on a sandbank preventing the ship completely sinking fully underwater.

A nearby dredger saw the capsize and radioed for help straight away. A massive rescue operation immediately swung into action with every available vessel heading to the ferry, helicopters and divers from nearby naval ships helped pull out over 300 people.

Inside the ferry the trapped passengers and crew were having a nightmare in the dark surrounded by upturned wreckage, water and unidentifiable flotsam. One man used his body as a bridge to get a group of people to safety. Others worked until they were exhausted.

As the morning broke the following day the TV cameras captured a sight that shocked the world. The open bow doors were clear to see and once again opened the debate on the safety of ferries and the open car decks. The Herald was part of the roll-on-roll-off style, whereby cars could enter the ship in one port through the bow and exit in the destination via the opposite end. The only issue is the enormous space between those doors running the complete length of the ship. When just on inch of water is allowed onto that deck it causes what is known as the "free surface effect" where water can move from one side of the ship to the other and destabilise the ship catastrophically. This is exactly what happened here when the Herald's open doors (weighted down) scooped water onto the car deck and sank her within minutes of picking up speed.

When the rescue operation was completed, the death toll stood at 193. A salvage operation managed to lift the ship upright before refloating her, a task that took several months. After the inquiry had been completed, it was found that the blame lay with the crew for sailing with the bow doors open. The wreck of the Herald of Free Enterprise was renamed Flushing Range and towed to Taiwan for scrapping. Not before she once again made headlines breaking her tow in a storm and almost falling once again a victim to the sea.

The legacy of the Herald disaster leaves a network of grieving families and memorials on both sides of the continent.
In 2009 I passed over the area where 22 years before the whole drama of the disaster had taken place before taking the time to visit the memorial garden at a Zeebrugge church. A stone disc on the ground bears an image of the Channel that the Herald was to take, a route taken many hundreds of times before.

The area here is very quiet, sectioned off with a hedge away from prying eyes. A place where mourners could lay flowers knowing that they would not be the first, neither would they be the last.

Fast forward to 2018 and over the water to Dover, I managed to visit three places where Herald memorials were on show. The first is a memorial garden on Marine Parade, facing out to the sea ahead. A small monument pays tribute to the disaster and gives the opportunity to see life growing from a small area commemorating so many deaths.

Dover was hit hard in the disaster, the place where the ship had departed from on so many occasions, the crew came from here and it was the place that was shocked the most by the enormity of the disaster. It was only natural that there were going to be more than one memorial dedicated to this ship.

In the centre of the town itself is St Mary's Church, a place that is so well positioned it is impossible to miss.  But inside is a beautiful stained glass window to the Herald and her lost souls (left).

Nearby a placard lists the names of all those who sailed on her that night and who didn't make it back. After a recent commemoration, her bell, recovered from the salvaged wreck, stood surrounded by fresh flowers and flanked by books of remembrance (Below and right). The silence in this church is deafening despite the central position to the town.

A few miles up the road, past Dover Castle, is the village of  St Margarets-at-Cliffe. The Church of St Margaret of Antioch stands tall here in the fog and wind swept hills. It was closed on the day I arrived but a phone call and a quick visit to a key holder allowed me to gain access for a short visit where I was able to take a few moments to stand in silence at another stained glass window (below), just as breathtaking as the previous. Only this was brought home to me even more so by the presence of graves nearby bearing the infamous date - 6th March 1987.

While the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise wasn't the largest sea disaster in British history, nor would she be the last, it was certainly the one that everybody these days seems to remember. The name itself resonates with the image of the bold red ship laying on her side that burned into the worlds memory, an accident waiting to happen but one that will now always be remembered.

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