6 March 2019






3 mins

On Friday night of 6th March 1987, the 1980 German built ferry HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE capsized few minutes after she left Zeebrugge Port, Belgium at 1920 hrs bound to Dover, UK killing 193 passengers and crew, of the 539 people aboard.

The eight deck car and passenger ferry, owned by British Townsend Thoresen, had been designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route, and there were no watertight compartments. When the ship left harbour with her bow-door open, the sea immediately flooded the decks, and within minutes she was lying on her side in shallow water.

When the ship left harbour with her bow door open, the sea immediately flooded the decks, and within minutes she was lying on her side in shallow water. Although the immediate cause of the sinking was found to be negligence by the assistant boatswain, who was asleep in his cabin when he should have been closing the bow-door, the official inquiry placed more blame on his supervisors and a general culture of poor communication in Townsend Thoresen.

Several crew members aboard the dredger SANDERAS saw the capsized ferry and at 1936 hrs the Captain alerted the port authority at Zeebrugge.  Upon receiving this notification the port authority activated its harbour rescue plan.  Tugs surrounded the Herald and a team of divers were delivered to the ferry by helicopter within thirty minutes. The Belgian Navy were on exercise in the area and also assisted in the rescue operation.

The dive crew leader Lieutenant-commander Guy Couwenbergh entered the passenger lounge to begin the rescue operation. The ladder that the soldiers had brought was too short to reach down to the passengers so Couwenbergh instructed his divers to find rope. The rope was lowered in to the cafeteria and tied around a passenger who was then hauled up and through the window.  This process was laborious and the passengers were weak from exposure to the cold water.  More windows were smashed and ropes lowered but many of the passengers were too weak to climb up them.  A wicker basket was found to haul up the children.

At 1910 hrs the first Belgian Airforce Seaking helicopter arrived at the scene and at 1925 hrs the first Belgian Diving Team is aboard.

Several ships went to the rescue scene including the british coaster RIVER TAMAR, tugs BURGERMEESTER VAN DAMME and SEA HORSE, crane barge ZEEBRUGGE 1, ferries GABRIELLE WEHR; NORDIC FERRY and EUROPEAN TRADER who were inside port and were dispatched and ro/ro DUKE OF ANGLIA.

At 2000 hrs the Royal Navy Mine Counter Measures Vessel (mcmv) HMS HURWORTH M 39 which was at Ostende, Belgium sent her divers by road to Zeebrugge.

Meanwhile rescue operation including other assets such as RAF Seaking Helicopters and Dutch Navy Minehunter HNLMS MIDDLEBERG M 858 took also part.

At 2330 hrs – Media reporters were getting aboard the ferry from tugs, and were impeding the rescue operations, which was turning into a search for bodies.

At 0115 hrs – Three survivors were found in the forward driver’s accommodation, and these were the last people to be found alive.

The accident resulted in the deaths of 193 people, most of whom succumbed to hypothermia.

On 6th March 2012 a memorial service was held at St. Mary the Virgin church in Dover to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster.  The service was organised  by the Sailor’s Society and was attended by more than 250 bereaved families and friends as well as survivors of the disaster.  During the service the names of all the 193 passengers and crew who perished in the disaster were read out, it took over 10 minutes to read the list and stars were handed out on which the congregation wrote messages which were later transcribed in to a book of remembrance.

A memorial garden with 25 white roses was created on the seafront at Dover to mark the anniversary .  After the church service the garden was dedicated and flowers were cast in to the sea in remembrance.

A general view of the board containing the names of the 193 victims in St. Mary’s the Vigin Church in Dover Kent, before the 25th Anniversary Service of Remembrance commemorating those who were lost in The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster on March 6th 1987. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday March 6, 2012. See PA story MEMORIAL Zeebrugge. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

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