The fatal 90 seconds of The Herald of Free Enterprise

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The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster occurred on 6 March 1987 after the Townsend Thoresen car ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise left her berth at Zeebrugge, Belgium, with her bow doors open, capsizing soon after leaving the harbour.The ship left its berth in Zeebrugge inner harbour at 18:05 (GMT) with a crew of 80 and carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 trucks. She passed the outer mole at 18:24 and capsized about four minutes later.

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When the ferry reached 18.9 knots (35.0 km/h; 21.7 mph) 90 seconds after leaving the harbour, water began to enter the car deck in large quantities. The resulting free surface effect destroyed her stability.

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 within 90 seconds.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 its side half-submerged in shallow water 1 kilometre (0.5 nmi; 0.6 mi) from the shore. Only a fortuitous turn to starboard in her last moments, and then capsizing on to a sandbar, prevented the ship from sinking entirely in much deeper water.

Crew aboard a nearby dredger noticed the Heralds lights disappear, and notified the port authorities. The alarm was raised at 18:26 British time (or 19:26 Belgian time). A rescue helicopter arrived within half an hour, shortly followed by assistance from the Belgian Navy, who were undertaking an exercise within the area.Wolfgang Schröder, a German Captain, was commended by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and received a medal from King Baudouin of Belgium for his heroic efforts in rescuing passengers.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of 193 people. Many of those on board had taken advantage of a promotion in The Sun newspaper offering 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.

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The rescue efforts of the Belgian Navy limited the death toll. Recoverable bodies were removed in the days following the accident. During the rescue the tide started to rise and the rescue team was forced to stop all efforts until morning. The last of the people left on board died of hypothermia.

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The Secretary of State for Transport ordered a formal investigation in to the capsizing of the Herald using powers granted under The Merchant Shipping Act 1970. The investigation was presided over by the Hon. Mr. Justice Sheen, Wreck Commissioner. Sir Barry Sheen served as Admiralty judge of the High Court from 1978 to 1993. The only powers given to this court were investigative. It was to determine who should contribute to the investigations costs and was able to suspend or remove a Merchant Officers Certificate of Competency should that be required.

The report concluded that the Herald sank because it had sailed with the bow doors open and attributed this occurrence to serious negligence on the part of several crew members and the owners, Townsend Car Ferries Limited.

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The report also highlighted several areas of concern relating to the spirit class vessel design and also to the companies operating policies.

The investigation found that the Herald was overloaded on weight and that this was a regular occurrence which Masters had alerted shore side management of, however found that this ‘was not in any way causative of the casualty’.

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The report names several crew members negligence in their duties as contributing factors in the capsizing of the Herald. Mr Mark Victor Stanley is named as being the crew member responsible for ensuring the bow doors were closed, the report acknowledges that Mr. Stanley accepted responsibility for this and also that he will suffer remorse for many years to come. 

The report criticised the attitude of Mr. Terence Ayling who was serving as bosun on the Herald.  He left G deck for his harbour station knowing that the bow doors were open and the assistant bosun was not present to close them.

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When questioned regarding his actions he advised the enquiry that he did nothing about it because it had never been part of his duties.

Chief Officer Leslie Sabel gave evidence to the enquiry and was found to have given a conflicting statement to that which he had given earlier however the investigation recognised that Mr.Sabel had been seriously injured during the capsizing and that this may have affected his recollection of events.

Judge Sheen questioned why the failing of one member of staff could lead to such a catastrophe and why systems had not been implemented to ensure that the doors had been closed, particularly as this was not the first time a spirit class ferry had sailed with the bow doors open.

The final judgement taken from the report is as follows:

“The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons stated in the Report, that the capsizing of the HERALD OF FREE ENTERPRISE was partly caused or contributed to by serious negligence in the discharge of their duties by Captain David Lewry (Master), Mr. Leslie Sabel (Chief Officer) and Mr. Mark Victor Stanley (Assistant bosun), and partly caused or contributed to by the fault of Townsend Car Ferries Limited (the Owners).  The court suspends the certificate of the said Captain David Lewry for a period of one year from the 24th July 1987. The Court suspends the certificate of the said Mr. Leslie Sabel for a period of two years from the 24th July 1987.”

The Herald of Free Enterprise incident highlighted the need for an independent, unbiased investigative body.  This led to the formation of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) in 1989.

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