The Marchioness Disaster – 1989

Many people living in Great Britain still remember learning of the appalling disaster that befell a leisure cruiser on the River Thames in the early hours of the morning of August 20 1989.

Photographers’ agent Jonathan Phang had put considerable effort into organizing the perfect 26th birthday party for his best friend, merchant banker Antonio de Vasconcellos. The evening began with dinner for eight, followed by champagne and birthday cake for 30. Jonathan had booked a River Thames pleasure cruiser for the party itself, collecting canapes, balloons and party poppers on the way. The Marchioness, packed with guests, finally set off after midnight.

Just 15 minutes later, near Cannon Street railway bridge, the Marchioness was holed through her side by the aggregate dredger Bowbelle. The Marchioness rolled, filling with water, the blow forcing her into the path of the Bowbelle, which ran straight over her. There were 131 people on board that night, including crew and party-goers. Most of those who survived the experience had been on the upper decks and were flung into the river by the collision. Like the birthday boy, many of the guests were only in their twenties – friends from student days, friends from the fashion industry and family. Of the eight who attended the dinner party, only Jonathan and Antonio’s brother survived. Antonio himself did not.

The investigation found fault with both captains: no clear instructions were issued to the look-out of the Bowbelle, visibility from both wheelhouses was poor, and both vessels were in the center of the river. Captain Henderson of the Bowbelle, who had downed six pints of beer during the course of that afternoon, was tried for failing to keep a proper look-out, but was acquitted by two separate juries.

When was the Marchioness Disaster: August 20 1989

Where was the Marchioness Disaster: The River Thames, London, UK

What was the Marchioness Disaster death toll: 51

You should know: In 1995, the jury returned verdicts of unlawful killing on those who drowned. For a decade, the action group founded by several survivors and their families pushed for an investigation. Bizarrely, Captain Henderson was allowed to retain his Master’s certificate despite the highly critical report that eventually appeared in 2001. As a result of the Marchioness tragedy many new safety measures were put into place on the Thames, including lifeboat rescue stations that have since proved their worth many times over.

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