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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31 January 1953- the day the Dutch lost the battle against the Sea.

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On this day in 1953, flooding in the North Sea kills more than 1,500 people in the Netherlands and destroys 1 million acres of farmland. The storm also caused death and destruction in Great Britain and Belgium.

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A combination of a high spring tide and a severe European windstorm over the North Sea caused a storm tide; the combination of wind, high tide, and low pressure led to a water level of more than 5.6 metres (18.4 ft) above mean sea level in some locations. The flood and waves overwhelmed sea defences and caused extensive flooding. The Netherlands, a country with 20% of its territory below mean sea level and 50% less than 1 metre (3.3 ft) above sea level and which relies heavily on sea defences, was worst affected, recording 1,836 deaths and widespread property damage. Most of the casualties occurred in the southern province of Zeeland. In England, 307 people were killed in the counties of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex. Nineteen were killed in Scotland. Twenty-eight people were killed in West Flanders, Belgium.

In addition, more than 230 deaths occurred on water craft along Northern European coasts as well as on ships in deeper waters of the North Sea. The ferry MV Princess Victoria was lost at sea in the North Channel east of Belfast with 133 fatalities, and many fishing trawlers sank.

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On the night of 31 January – 1 February 1953, many dykes in the provinces of Zeeland, South Holland and North Brabant proved unable to resist the combination of spring tide and a northwesterly storm. On both the islands and the mainland, large areas of country were flooded. Many people still commemorate the dead on 1 February.

At the time of the flood, none of the local radio stations broadcast at night, and many of the smaller weather stations operated only during the day. As a result, the warnings of the KNMI (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) did not penetrate the flood-threatened area in time. People were unable to prepare for the impending flood. As the disaster struck on a Saturday night, many government and emergency offices in the affected area were not staffed.

As telephone and telegraph networks were disrupted by flood damage, within hours amateur radio operators went into the affected areas with their equipment to form a voluntary emergency radio network. These well-organized radio amateurs worked tirelessly, providing radio communications for ten days and nights, and were the only people able to maintain contact from affected areas with the outside world.

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Large parts of South Holland, Zeeland and North Brabant were inundated. In North Holland only one polder was flooded. The most extensive flooding occurred on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland, Tholen, Sint Philipsland, Goeree-Overflakkee, the Hoeksche Waard, Voorne-Putten and Alblasserwaard. Parts of the islands of Zuid-Beveland, Noord-Beveland, IJsselmonde, Pernis, Rozenburg, Walcheren and Land van Altena were flooded, as well as parts of the areas around Willemstad, Nieuw-Vossemeer and parts of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen.

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The highest death tolls were recorded on the islands of Schouwen-Duiveland and Goeree-Overflakkee.

Afterward, the government formed the Delta Commission to study the causes and effects of the floods. They estimated that flooding killed 1,835 people and forced the emergency evacuation of 70,000 more. Floods covered 9% of Dutch farmland, and sea water flooded 1,365 km² of land. An estimated 30,000 animals drowned, and 47,300 buildings were damaged, of which 10,000 were destroyed. Total damage was estimated at 1 billion Dutch guilders.

The Schielands Hoge Zeedijk (Schielands High Seadyke) along the river Hollandse IJssel was all that protected three million people in the provinces of South and North Holland from flooding. A section of this dyke, known as the Groenendijk, was not reinforced with stone revetments. The water level was just below the crest and the seaward slope was weak.

Volunteers worked to reinforce this stretch. But, the Groenendijk began to collapse under the pressure around 5:30 am on 1 February. Seawater flooded into the deep polder. In desperation, the mayor of Nieuwerkerk commandeered the river ship de Twee Gebroeders (The Two Brothers) and ordered the owner to plug the hole in the dyke by navigating the ship into it. Fearing that the ship might break through into the polder, Captain Arie Evegroen took a row boat with him. The mayor’s plan was successful, as the ship was lodged firmly into the dyke, reinforcing it against failure and saving many lives.

Several neighbouring countries sent soldiers to assist in searching for bodies and rescuing people. The U.S. Army sent helicopters from Germany to rescue people from rooftops. Queen Juliana and Princess Beatrix visited the flooded area only a few days after.

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A large aid program came on apace, supported by the radio. A national donation program was started and there was a large amount of international aid. The Red Cross was overwhelmed by contributions and decided to send some of the funds to assist residents of Third World countries.

Politically, the disaster prompted discussions in the Netherlands concerning the protection and strengthening of the dykes. As a result, the Delta Works were authorized, an elaborate project to enable emergency closing of the mouths of most estuaries, to prevent flood surges upriver.

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The sinking off the MV Wilhelm Gustloff

The sinking of the Titanic may be the most infamous naval disaster in history, and the torpedoing of the Lusitania the most infamous in wartime. But with death counts of about 1,500 and 1,200 respectively, both are dwarfed by what befell the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German ocean liner that was taken down by a Soviet sub on Jan. 30, 1945, killing 9,343 people—most of them war refugees, about 5,000 of them children

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MV Wilhelm Gustloff was a German military transport ship which was sunk on 30 January 1945 by Soviet submarine S-13 in the Baltic Sea while evacuating German civilians, Nazi officials and military personnel from Gdynia (Gotenhafen) as the Red Army advanced. By one estimate,9,400 people died, which makes it the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history.

Constructed as a cruise ship for the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) organisation in 1937, she had been requisitioned by the Kriegsmarine (German navy) in 1939. She served as a hospital ship in 1939 and 1940. She was then assigned as a floating barracks for naval personnel in Gdynia before being put into service to transport evacuees in 1945.

The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff by the Russian submarine S-13 resulted in over 9,000 tragic deaths – a staggering figure by any comparison.  Heartbreakingly, estimates have indicated that up to half of those who perished were children.

Fleeing from a brutal Soviet Red Army onslaught, the Wilhelm Gustloff was ready to leave port jammed with over 10,000 German refugees, naval personnel and wounded soldiers.  The vessel was designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew.  Of the refugees, a staggering four thousand were infants, children and youths on their way to promising safety in the West. Minus 18° Celsius (0° Fahrenheit) weather gripped the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) on Tuesday the 30th of January 1945.

Wilhelm Gustloff was the first purpose-built cruise liner for the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) and used by subsidiary organisation Kraft durch Freude (KdF) (Strength Through Joy). Her purposes were to provide recreational and cultural activities for German functionaries and workers, including concerts, cruises, and other holiday trips, and as a public relations tool, to present “a more acceptable image of the Third Reich.”She was the flagship of the KdF cruise fleet, her last civilian role, until the spring of 1939.

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During the summer of 1939, she was pressed into service to bring the Condor Legion back from Spain after the victory of the Nationalist forces under General Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

From September 1939 to November 1940, she served as a hospital ship, with her official designation being Lazarettschiff D.

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Beginning on 20 November 1940, the medical equipment was removed from the ship and she was repainted from the hospital ship colors of white with a green stripe to standard naval grey.As a consequence of the British blockade of the German coastline, she was used as an accommodations ship (barracks) for approximately 1,000 U-boat trainees of the 2nd Submarine Training Division (2.Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision) in the port of Gdynia, which had been occupied by Germany and renamed “Gotenhafen“, located near Danzig. In 1942, SS Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in for RMS Titanic in the German film version of the disaster.

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https://dirkdeklein.net/2016/05/03/the-tragedy-of-the-ss-cap-arcona/

Filmed in Gotenhafen, the 2nd Submarine Training Division acted as extras in the movie. The Wilhelm Gustloff sat in dock for over four years, until she was put back into service to transport civilians and military personnel as part of Operation Hannibal.

Operation Hannibal was the naval evacuation of German troops and civilians from Courland, East Prussia, and Danzig-West Prussia as the Red Army advanced. Wilhelm Gustloffs final voyage was to evacuate German refugees and military personnel as well as technicians who worked at advanced weapon bases in the Baltic from Gdynia, then known to the Germans as Gotenhafen, to Kiel.

The ship’s complement and passenger lists cited 6,050 people on board, but this did not include many civilians who boarded the ship without being recorded in the official embarkation records. Heinz Schön, a German archivist and Gustloff survivor who carried out extensive research into the sinking during the 1980s and 1990s, concluded that Wilhelm Gustloff was carrying a crew of 173 (naval armed forces auxiliaries), 918 officers, NCOs, and men of the 2 Unterseeboot-Lehrdivision, 373 female naval auxiliary helpers, 162 wounded soldiers, and 8,956 civilians of which an estimated 5,000 were children, for a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. The passengers besides civilians included Gestapo personnel, members of the Organisation Todt and Nazi officials with their families.

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The ship was overcrowded, and due to the temperature and humidity inside many passengers defied orders not to remove their life jackets.

The ship left Gotenhafen early on 30 January 1945, accompanied by the passenger liner Hansa, also filled with civilians and military personnel, and two torpedo boats. Hansa and one torpedo boat developed mechanical problems and could not continue, leaving Wilhelm Gustloff with one torpedo boat escort, Löwe.

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The ship had four captains (the Gustloff‘s captain, two merchant marine captains and the captain of the U-Boat complement housed on the vessel) on board, and they could not agree on the best course of action to guard against submarine attacks. Against the advice of the military commander, Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn (a submariner who argued for a course in shallow waters close to shore and without lights), Wilhelm Gustloff‘s captain—Friedrich Petersen—decided to head for deep water which was known to have been cleared of mines. When he was informed by a mysterious radio message of an oncoming German minesweeper convoy, he decided to activate his ship’s red and green navigation lights so as to avoid a collision in the dark, making Wilhelm Gustloff easy to spot in the night.

As Wilhelm Gustloff had been fitted with anti-aircraft guns, and the Germans, in obedience to the rules of war, did not mark her as a hospital ship, no notification of her operating in a hospital capacity had been given and, as she was transporting military personnel, she did not have any protection as a hospital ship under international accords.

The ship and her escorting torpedo boat were soon sighted by the Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko.

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The submarine sensor on board the escorting torpedo boat had frozen, rendering it inoperable as had Wilhelm Gustloffs anti-aircraft guns, leaving the vessels defenseless. Marinesko followed the ships for two hours before launching three torpedoes at Wilhelm Gustloffs port side about 30 km (16 nmi; 19 mi) offshore between Großendorf and Leba soon after 21:00 (CET), hitting it with all three. Marinesko intended to fire four torpedoes but the fourth misfired and the crew had to disarm it.

The first torpedo caused the watertight doors to seal off the bow which contained the crews’ quarters where off-duty crew members were sleeping. The second torpedo hit the accommodations for the women’s naval auxiliary located in the ship’s drained swimming pool; dislodging the pool tiles at high speed which caused heavy casualties and only three of the 373 quartered there survived. The third torpedo was a direct hit on the engine room, cutting all power and communications. Reportedly, only one lifeboat was able to be lowered, the rest had frozen in their davits and had to be broken free with some lost when they fell or capsized as a result of the panic.

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The water temperature in the Baltic Sea at that time of year is usually around 4 °C (39 °F); however, this was a particularly cold night, with an air temperature of −18 to −10 °C (0 to 14 °F) and ice floes covering the surface. Many deaths were caused either directly by the torpedoes or by drowning in the onrushing water. Others were crushed in the initial panic on the stairs and decks, and many jumped into the icy Baltic. The majority of those who perished succumbed to exposure in the freezing water.

Less than 40 minutes after being struck, Wilhelm Gustloff was lying on her side and sank bow-first, in 44 m (144 ft) of water.

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German forces were able to rescue some (a total of 1,252) of the survivors from the attack: torpedo boat T-36 rescued 564 people; torpedo boat Löwe, 472; minesweeper M387, 98; minesweeper M375, 43; minesweeper M341, 37; the steamer Göttingen saved 28; torpedo-recovery boat (torpedofangboot) TF19, seven; the freighter Gotland, two; and patrol boat (Vorpostenboot) V1703 was able to save one baby.

All four captains on Wilhelm Gustloff survived her sinking, but an official naval inquiry was started only against Wilhelm Zahn. His degree of responsibility was never resolved, however, because of Nazi Germany’s collapse in 1945.

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Many ships carrying civilians were sunk during the war by both the Allies and Axis.However, based on the latest estimates of passenger numbers and those known to be saved, Wilhelm Gustloff remains the largest loss of life resulting from the sinking of one vessel in maritime history. Günter Grass, in an interview published by The New York Times in April 2003, “One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right.

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They said the tragedy of Wilhelm Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war.”

About 1,000 German naval officers and men were aboard during, and died in, the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff. The women on board the ship at the time of the sinking were inaccurately described by Soviet propaganda as “SS personnel from the German concentration camps”. There were, however, 373 female naval auxiliaries among the passengers.

On February 10, just 11 days after the sinking, S-13 sank another German ship, General von Steuben, killing about 3,000 people.

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Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed “not suitable to be a hero” for his actions and was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990