For those old enough to remember, 6th March 1987 was the day the MS Herald of Free Enterprise sank. This was a ferry operated by Townsend Thoresen and was due to sail between Zeebrugge in Belgium to Dover, England. The ferry was designed to carry both cars and passengers, and was known as a roll-on, roll-off ferry.
She left the inner breakwater of Zeebrugge port at 7.20pm and just eight minutes later, she capsized. The sinking led to a death toll of 193, with over 400 escaping the MS Herald of Free Enterprise with their lives. An inquest took place later that year and it returned verdicts of unlawful killing on those who died in the disaster.
What happened to cause the MS Herald of Free Enterprise to sink?
The speed of the sinking of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise was particularly shocking for those involved, and for those who found out about the tragedy from news reports at the time. It was also shocking because it could have been prevented; the reason for the tragedy was found to be human error at the inquest. Each ferry has a set amount of time in which to offload one set of passengers and take on board the next group before departing the port. The ferries at Zeebrugge were given longer than usual because there was only one ramp leading onto the car deck.
Additionally, water needed to be pumped into the ferry to fill the ballast tanks. This settled the ferry lower in the water and adjusted the level of the ramp so the cars could be driven on or off the ferry as appropriate. The formal investigation report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch found the bow doors of the ferry were still open when the ferry departed from Zeebrugge. Additionally, the additional ballast was still in the tanks designed for this purpose, when it should have been ejected prior to sailing. These two elements allowed water to pour onto the car deck, destabilising the ferry and leading to the sinking in a time of just 90 seconds. The disaster happened so quickly there wasn’t even any time for an SOS message to be sent from the ferry.
Are ferry journeys safer now?
New laws came into force because of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise disaster. While the number of so-called short-sea passengers declined in 2015, dropping by 1% to 21 million people, there could be many reasons for this. Overall, the rise in planned holidays to foreign destinations rose from 73% in 2013 to 78% in 2014, according to statistics. However, most people opt for plane journeys instead of driving to the continent via a car ferry.
Additionally, 65.7 million visits were made by UK residents to all foreign destinations in 2015. This figure includes those made via car and passenger ferries on day trips. According to the government’s official figures, the most popular route is still the Dover to Calais route, although passenger numbers fell by 9% in 2015 compared with the previous year. The new regulations that came into force because of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise disaster and the Estonia ferry sinking that occurred in 1994 have made ferry journeys even safer than they were before. If the proper measures had been taken at the time, those on board the MS Herald of Free Enterprise could have been saved.
What’s the main danger if you’re on board a ship that is sinking?
Many of those on board the MS Herald of Free Enterprise died because they were on board the ferry as it sank and found themselves in very cold water. Hypothermia was found to be the cause of death in most cases. However, if a ship is listing, it will become harder to remain upright. Getting onto the deck so you can escape into a lifeboat is the main thing you should do if you are ever unlucky enough to be involved in one of these very rare situations.
Thankfully, ferry travel has become much safer since the Eighties and Nineties. As is often the case when a disaster of great magnitude happens, lessons are learned from it, new rules and regulations are put into place and people can travel more safely in the future. Providing the health and safety measures are followed, there should be little reason for an accident of this scale to happen again. Many of those who survived still remember the sinking in vivid detail, even over 25 years later.
Have you been hurt on board a ferry recently?
Of course, while ferry disasters of this scope are exceptionally rare, people still have the potential to receive injuries whenever they are travelling. This applies regardless of whether you are on a ferry, a cruise ship, a train or a plane. But if you have been injured while travelling on a ferry, it’s worth thinking about how that injury happened. Were you given proper safety warnings before the ferry set sail? Did you suffer an injury because there was a hazard on board that should not have been present? Was one of the decks slippery and difficult to walk on, or did you fall down a flight of steps that was slippery?
Call now for help and support
Whatever happened to you, it is always worth speaking with a lawyer to determine whether there was any negligence involved on the part of another person. If this is true, there could be a good argument to support a compensation award being granted. Accident Advice Helpline can help you work out whether this is possible for you. We have a free enquiry line you can call on 0800 689 0500 (or you can use your mobile to call 0333 500 0993). With a chance to receive an award via a no-win, no-fee* claim agreement with our solicitors, you may be in a better position than you think, so give our team a ring now.
Date Published: December 9, 2015
Author: David Brown