The Herald of Free Enterprise Disaster
By James Donahue
Among the great disasters of the sea has been the loss of the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise,
which capsized off Zeebrugge, Belgium on March 6, 1987, killing 193 people.
The 432-foot-long ship owned by the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, was an odd-appearing
vessel, rising eight decks above the water line. She was designed for rapid loading and unloading of vehicles and there were
no watertight compartments.
When the ship left Zeebrugge harbor, at the start of what was to have been a short trip to Dover,
England, her bow doors were still open. The moment the vessel got underway, the water flooded the lower decks and the ferry
capsized, going on its side in shallow water.
The sinking of roll-on, roll-off car and passenger ferries has happened too frequently throughout
the world to assure the safety of their general design. Yet the need for this kind of service between islands and ocean-front
ports has made these types of vessels popular. The main cause of these disasters has been those lower deck doors used for
loading and unloading cars. Either they are carelessly left open, or they have become damaged and begin leaking while the
ship is at sea.
In the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the assistant boatswain assigned to close the bow doors
was asleep on the job and failed to close the doors. The design of the ship prevented officers from the bridge to notice if
the bow doors were closed, so the ship steamed out of the harbor, with officers assuming that the boatswain had done his job.
The ship, commanded by Captain David Lewry, was carrying a crew of 80, 459 passengers, 81 cars, three
buses and 47 trucks when it left its berth. It capsized about 30 minutes later, as it was entering the open water of the English
Channel. As it began listing to port, the ship was turned, causing it to sink on a sandbar, thus preventing the wreck from
completely sinking in deep water.
Rescue vessels and a helicopter helped save most of the people on the wreck, but 193 people died,
many of them from being trapped in their cabins under water and others from hypothermia in the frigid waters of the channel.
A Court of Inquiry blamed Captain Lewry for leaving port without being assured the bow doors were
closed, assistant boatswain Mark Stanley’s failure to close the doors and First Officer Leslie Sabel’s failure
to stay on deck to make sure the doors were closed.
The ferry was launched in Germany in 1980 so was only seven years old at the time of the sinking.
It was salvaged the following year and scrapped.