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MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) car and passenger ferry owned by Townsend Thoresen. She was one of three ships commissioned by the company to operate on the DovermarkerCalaismarker route across the English Channelmarker. The ferry capsized on the night of 6 March 1987, moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew. This was the worst maritime disaster involving a British registered ship in peacetime since the sinking of the Iolairemarker in 1919.


In the late 1970s, Townsend Thoresen decided to commission the design and construction of three new identical ships for its DovermarkerCalaismarker route for delivery from 1980. The ships were branded the Spirit class and were named Herald of Free Enterprise, Pride of Free Enterprise and Spirit of Free Enterprise.

The Dover–Calais crossing of the Channel is the shortest route between England and France, and in 1987 (prior to the opening of the Channel Tunnelmarker) it was the quickest route. To remain competitive with other ferry operators on the route, Townsend Thoresen required ships which were designed to permit fast loading and unloading and quick acceleration. The ships comprised eight decks numbered A to H from top to bottom which contained the following:
  • A Deck: Crew accommodation and radio room
  • B Deck: Crew accommodation and galley
  • C Deck: Passenger areas and galley
  • D Deck: Suspended vehicle deck within E deck
  • E Deck: Upper vehicle deck
  • F deck: Mezzanine level
  • G deck: Main vehicle deck
  • H deck: Engine rooms, stores and passenger accommodation

Loading of vehicles onto G deck was through watertight doors at the bow and stern. Both sets of doors were hinged about a vertical axis meaning the status of the bow doors could not be seen from the wheel house. Loading of vehicles onto E deck and F deck was through a weathertight door at the bow and an open portal at the stern. Vehicles could be loaded and unloaded onto E and G deck simultaneously using double deck linkspans in use at Dover and Calais.

The ships were constructed by Schichau-Unterweser AG in Bremerhavenmarker, Germany.

Background to the capsizing

On the day the ferry capsized, the Herald of Free Enterprise was working the route between Dovermarker and the Belgianmarker port of Zeebruggemarker. This was not her normal route and the linkspan at Zeebrugge had not been designed specifically for the Spirit class of vessels. The linkspan used comprised a single deck and so could not be used to load decks E and G simultaneously. The ramp could also not be raised high enough to meet the level of deck E due to the high spring tides being encountered at that time. This was commonly known and was overcome by trimming the ship bow heavy by filling forward ballast tanks. The Herald was due to be modified during its refit in 1987 to overcome this problem. Before dropping moorings, it was normal practice for the Assistant Boatswain to close the doors. However, the Assistant Bosun, Mark Stanley, had taken a short break after cleaning the car deck upon arrival at Zeebrugge. He had returned to his cabin and was still asleep when the harbor-stations call sounded and the ship dropped its moorings. The First Officer normally stayed on deck to make sure the doors were closed, but he'd returned to the wheelhouse to stay on schedule. The captain could only assume that the doors had been closed since he could not see them from the wheelhouse due to their construction and had no indicator lights in the wheelhouse.

The capsizing

The ship left Zeebrugge at 6:05pm British time with a crew of 80 and carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 lorries. When the ferry reached 18.9 knots (33 km/h) 90 seconds after leaving the harbour, water began to enter the car deck in large quantities. The resulting free surface effect destroyed her stability. At 6:28pm, in a matter of seconds, the ship began to list 30 degrees to port. The ship briefly righted herself before listing to port once more, this time capsizing. The entire event took place in less than a minute. The water quickly reached the ship's electrical systems, destroying both main and emergency power and leaving the ship in darkness.

The ship ended on her side half-submerged in shallow water 1km from the shore. Only a fortuitous turn to starboard in her last moments, and then capsizing onto a sandbar, prevented the ship from sinking entirely in much deeper water, which would have resulted in an even higher death toll.

A nearby dredger noticed the Herald's lights disappear, and notified the port authorities. A rescue helicopter arrived within half an hour, shortly followed by assistance from the Belgian Navy who were undertaking an exercise within the area.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of 193 people. Many of those on board had taken advantage of a promotion in The Sun newspaper for cheap trips to the continent. Most of the victims were trapped inside the ship and succumbed to hypothermia because of the frigid (3 °C) water. The rescue efforts of the Belgian Navy limited the death toll. Recoverable bodies were removed in the days following the accident.

The inquiry

After a public inquiry into the sinking in July 1987, Britain's Lord Justice Sir Barry Sheen published a report that placed primary blame on Stanley for not closing the bow doors, the First Officer for not making sure they were closed, and the captain for leaving port without knowing the doors were closed. It also castigated Townsend Thoresen, the ship's owners, and identified a "disease of sloppiness" and negligence at every level of the corporation's hierarchy.

It was apparent from the testimony of crew members that the member responsible for shutting the doors was Mark Stanley; it was confirmed that when he finished cleaning the car deck after the arrival in Zeebrugge he returned to his cabin for a short break, but did not return to the car deck during loading of vehicles and before the ship set sail. When he was questioned, investigators found that he was still asleep when the call to harbor stations sounded. There was confusion as to why no one else closed the doors. The other crew members expected Stanley to close them because he was scheduled to close them. Before the ship dropped moorings the First Officer should have stayed on the car deck to make sure the doors were closed, but trying to stay on schedule he went back to the wheelhouse. The final factor was that the captain left port assuming the doors were closed rather than knowing they were closed.

According to the National Geographicmarker documentary "Seconds From Disaster" on the capsizing - a few years earlier, one of the Herald s sister ships sailed from Dover to Zeebrugge with the bow doors open, but she made it to the destination without incident. It was therefore believed that leaving the bow doors open alone should not have caused the ship to capsize.

After looking at possible reasons for reduced clearance between the doors and water line, investigators found that there was a problem during the loading of the car decks. The loading ramp at Zeebrugge was too low to reach the upper car deck at high tide. To clear the gap, the captain put sea water into the front ballast tanks to lower the ship's bow. The clearance between bow doors and water line was 2.5 metres. The problem arose due to the fact that Dover-Zeebrugge was not her regular route. Had the Herald survived she would have been modified to avoid this procedure.

Another factor that contributed to the capsizing was the depth of the water. When a vessel is underway, the movement under it creates low pressure, which has the effect of increasing the vessel's draft. This effect is known as ship "squat". In deep water the effect is small but in shallow water it is greater, because as the water passes underneath it moves faster and causes the draft to be increased further. This reduced the clearance between the bow doors and water line to 1.5 metres. Although the bow doors were open and they were 1.5 metres above the water, it was still not enough to cause the ship to capsize, so the investigators looked at the height and volume of water produced by the bow wave.

After extensive tests, the investigators found that when the ship travelled at a speed of , the wave was enough to engulf the bow doors. This caused a "step change": if the ship was below 18 knots and not in shallow water, people on the car deck would probably have had time to notice the bow doors were open and close them, but even this did not cause the final capsizing.

Almost all ships are divided into watertight compartments below the water line so that in the event of flooding, the water is confined to one compartment, keeping the ship afloat. The Herald's design had an open car deck with no dividers, allowing vehicles to drive in and out easily, but this allowed water to flood the whole of the car deck, putting the ship in danger. As she turned the water flooded to one side and the vessel capsized.

In October 1987, a coroner's inquest jury into the capsizing returned verdicts of unlawful killing. Many of the individuals involved at the company were prosecuted for manslaughter, as was the operating company, P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd (for a discussion of the legal issues, see corporate manslaughter). The disaster was one of a number that influenced thinking leading to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

The inquest also uncovered a striking story, described here in a later Court of Appeal case:

At the coroner's inquest conducted in October 1987 into the Zeebrugge disaster, an army corporal gave evidence that he and dozens of other people were near the foot of a rope ladder. They were all in the water and in danger of drowning. Their route to safety, however, was blocked for at least ten minutes by a young man who was petrified by cold or fear (or both) and was unable to move up or down. Eventually the corporal gave instructions that the man should be pushed off the ladder, and he was never seen again. The corporal and many others were then able to climb up the ladder to safety."

No charges were brought against the corporal or any of the others involved, nor was the young man ever identified.

The aftermath

A salvage operation, conducted by Dutch company Smit-Tak Towage and Salvage (part of Smit International), was embarked upon almost immediately to refloat the ship. The operation was successfully concluded late in April 1987 allowing the remaining bodies trapped underwater to be removed. The ship was towed to Zeebrugge where its fate was decided. It had originally been assumed that it could be repaired and continue sailing. Eventually no buyer came forward to retain the ship and she was renamed Flushing Range and the Townsend Thoresen branding painted over before her final one way trip to Kaohsiungmarker, Taiwanmarker, for scrapping.

After the incident, the Townsend Thoresen brand had been broadcast on television and in newspapers around the world. P&O quickly decided to rebrand the company as P&O Ferries and repaint their fleet's red hulls in navy blue and remove the TT logo from the funnels (the "TT" logo on the Herald of Free Enterprise had been removed at the start of the salvage operation).

Since the accident several improvements to the design of this type of vessel have been made, these include indicators that display the state of the bow doors on the bridge, watertight ramps being fitted to the bow sections of the front of the ship, and "freeing flaps" to allow water to escape from a vehicle deck in the event of flooding. Some vessels omit the bow door configuration altogether and vehicles enter and exit from rear doors only. New International Maritime Organization (IMO) regulations are in place that prohibit an open (undivided) deck of this length on a passenger RORO vessel.

Her two sister ships are still operational, though the former Spirit of Free Enterprise was extended to increase her cargo capacity during her time under the P&O flag in a stretch and total rebuild operation. The Pride of Free Enterprise is still more or less as built.

A few scenes of the disaster videotaped live by the media were used by film director Krzysztof Kieślowski as part of the conclusion of his film Three Colours: Red that bound together the Three Colours trilogy.

In Britain, a group named Ferry Aid released a charity record.

The Right Hon Nicholas Ridley MP, a government minister at the time, was criticised for alluding to the accident (while speaking on another subject) on 10 March. He was quoted as saying that "although he is the pilot of the Bill, he has not got his bow doors open". He apologised for the remark.

In 2007 Belgian singer Jonathan Vandenbroeck, more commonly known as Milow, released a song to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, titled "Herald of Free Enterprise" the song echoes the tragic events of the evening and was featured on his 2009 self titled album "Milow".

The disaster was the subject of an episode from Series 2 of Seconds from Disaster.

Gallantry awards

The following British awards for gallantry on the night of the sinking were gazetted on 30 December 1987:
  • Herald of Free Enterprise crew
  • Herald of Free Enterprise passenger
  • Belgian Navy
    • Luitenant-Ter-Zee 1ste Klas Guido A. Couwenbergh, Queen's Gallantry Medal
    • Luitenant-Ter-Zee 1ste Klas Alfons M. A. C. Daems, Queen's Gallantry Medal
  • Royal Navy
    • Lieutenant Simon Nicholas Bound, Queen's Gallantry Medal
    • Able Seaman Eamon Christopher McKinley Fullen, Queen's Gallantry Medal
    • Chief Petty Officer Edward Gene Kerr, Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct
    • Chief Petty Officer Peter Frank Still, Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct
  • Tijdelijke Vereniging Bergingswerken
    • Piet Lagast, Diver, Queen's Gallantry Medal
    • Dirk van Mullem, Diver, Queen's Gallantry Medal

See also


  1. How some medicolegal aspects of the Zeebrugge Ferry disaster apply to the investigation of mass disasters. International Journal of Legal Medicine 12(4): 286-290.
  2. Robins, Nick (1995) The evolution of the British ferry, Kilgetty : Ferry, ISBN 1-871947-31-6, p. 89
  4. In Re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) Court of Appeal 22 September 2000 [2001] Fam 147, P. 229
  5. Koefoed-Hansen, Michael (2007) M/F Oleander, The ferry site, www page, accessed 22 June 2007
  6. House of Commons PQs | Margaret Thatcher Foundation

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