New laws and stricter safety rules are the legacies of a tragic ferry disaster that claimed 193 lives 30 years ago.
The ferry – Herald of Free Enterprise – turned over on its side off the coast of Zeebrugge, Belgium, as it set out for Dover, Kent at around 6pm on March 6, 1987.
More than 150 passengers and almost 40 crew died in what has been called the “the worst peacetime British maritime disaster in living memory”.
An inquiry into the incident, conducted by Lord Justice Sheen, says the company had been “infected with the disease of sloppiness” from the top down.
A crew member had fallen asleep and failed to close the bow doors as the ferry had left Zebrugge port. This allowed water to flood the car deck which led to the vessel capsizing, the inquiry confirmed. Verdicts of unlawful killing were returned by the inquest jury in October 1987.
Corporate Manslaughter Act
As a result of the tragedy, P&O European Ferries was charged with corporate manslaughter and stood trial at the Old Bailey in In September 1990.
Some seven employees were also charged with manslaughter.
But the whole case collapsed when judge Sir Michael Turner told the jury that there was not enough evidence to convict the company or individuals.
At this time, a firm could only be found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter if a senior figurehead of the organisation was also found guilty.
Campaigners for the Corporate Manslaughter Bill – a law to introduce accountability for serious management failings – often cited the Zeebrugge incident in a bid to get the law passed into statute.
In April 2008, the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was finally introduced across the UK.
Tightening of regulations
New design regulations and safety standards have since been introduced to safeguard against some of the key issues that were brought to light as a result of the Herald of Free Enterprise catastrophe.
Following confusion about those on board the Zeebrugge ferry, ferry companies are now required to log details on the passengers – including the name, age and sex of travellers to assist search and rescue efforts.
Britain has also imposed stricter stability and survivability measures at UK ports, which exceed the minimum standards, set elsewhere in Europe.
Date Published: March 6, 2017
Author: Jonathan Brown