When the Townsend Thoresen car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the evening of March 6 1987 she was carrying some 650 passengers and their vehicles.
Conditions at sea were calm so they settled down to what should have been a smooth passage across the English Channel to Dover. The ferry was barely 100 m (330 ft) out, however, when observers on shore watched in horror as the large vessel began to capsize; within two minutes it had rolled over and come to rest on its port side in the shallow water. Rescue services were quick to the scene and took over 400 people off the ship; but the sheer speed of events meant that many passengers had no chance of escape and perished in the freezing waters. The Herald ended up on a sandbank; had she gone over in deeper water, the death toll would undoubtedly have been higher.
It seemed unlikely to most onlookers that a simple accident could have caused the catastrophe. The Herald of Free Enterprise was a ‘ro-ro’ (roll-on roll-off) type ferry and it soon became clear that the bow doors had been left open when the ferry sailed; water had instantly flooded the car decks, destabilizing the ship and causing her to keel over. P&O, the company which now owned Townsend Thoresen, were heavily criticized in the public inquiry that followed; its report highlighted a ‘disease of sloppiness’ at all levels of the organization. The coroner’s inquest held in Dover returned a verdict of unlawful killing, which led to P&O being charged with corporate manslaughter as well as seven employees facing individual manslaughter charges. Although the 1989 court case collapsed, it set an important precedent for corporate manslaughter being admissible in a British court of law.
When was the Herald of Free Enterprise Ferry Disaster: March 6 1987
Where was the Herald of Free Enterprise Ferry Disaster: Outside the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium
What was the Herald of Free Enterprise Ferry Disaster death toll: 193
You should know: New safety measures and regulations were introduced on all British ships as a consequence of the disaster; these included cameras being fitted to a ship’s bow so the bridge can verify that doors have been closed before sailing.