Sunday, September 21, 2008

Herald of Free Enterprise

MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) car and passenger ferry owned by Townsend Thoresen. She was one of three ships commissioned by the company to operate on the Dover–Calais route across the English Channel. The ferry capsized on the night of 6 March 1987 killing 193 passengers and crew. This was the worst maritime disaster involving a British registered ship in peacetime since the sinking of the Iolaire in 1919.

Background to the capsizing On the day the ferry capsized, the Herald of Free Enterprise was working the route between Dover and the Belgian port of Bruges-Zeebrugge. This was not her normal route and the linkspan at Zeebrugge had not been designed specifically for the Spirit class of vessels. The linkspan used comprised a single deck and so could not be used to load decks E and G simultaneously. The ramp could also not be raised high enough to meet the level of deck E due to the high spring tides being encountered at that time. This was commonly known and was overcome by trimming the ship bow heavy by filling forward ballast tanks. The Herald was due to be modified during its refit in 1987 to overcome this problem. Before dropping moorings, it was normal practice for a member of the crew, the Assistant Bosun, to close the doors, the First Officer also remained on deck to ensure they were closed before returning to the wheel house. To keep on schedule, the First Officer returned to the wheel house before the ship dropped its moorings leaving closing of the doors the responsibility of the Assistant Bosun, Mark Stanley. Mark Stanley had taken a short break after cleaning the car deck upon arrival at Zeebrugge. He had returned to his cabin and was still asleep when the ship dropped its moorings. The captain could only assume that the doors had been closed since he could not see them from the wheel house due to their construction and had no indicator lights in the wheelhouse. There was confusion as to why no one else closed the doors.

The capsizing
The ship sailed at 6:05pm British time with a crew of 80 and carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses, and 47 trucks. When the ferry reached 18.9 knots (33 km/h) 90 seconds after leaving the harbour, water began to enter the car deck in large quantities. The resulting free surface effect destroyed her stability. Within seconds, at 6:28pm, 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 in less than a minute. 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 her side half-submerged in shallow water 1km from the shore. Only a fortuitous turn to starboard in her last moments, and then capsizing onto a sandbar, prevented the ship from sinking entirely in much deeper water. If the Herald sunk in much deeper water, the death toll would have been much higher, because the ship then would have been completely submerged.

A nearby dredger noticed the Herald's lights disappear, and notified the port authorities. A rescue helicopter arrived within half an hour, shortly followed by assistance from the Belgian Navy who were undertaking an exercise within the area.

The disaster resulted in the deaths of 193 people. Many of those on board had taken advantage of a promotion in The Sun newspaper for 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. Due to the rescue operation of the Belgian Navy the death toll was limited. Recoverable bodies were removed in the days following the accident.

The inquiry
After a public inquiry into the sinking in July 1987, Britain's Lord Justice Sir Barry Sheen published a report that castigated Townsend Thoresen, the ship's owners, and identified a "disease of sloppiness" and negligence at every level of the corporation's hierarchy. It was confirmed that the ferry left port with her bow doors open.

It was apparent from the testimony of crew members that the member responsible for shutting the doors was Mark Stanley, but it was confirmed that when he finished cleaning the car deck after the arrival in Zeebrugge he returned to his cabin for a short break but did not return to the car deck during loading of vehicles and before the ship set sail. When he was questioned, investigators found that at the time when he should have closed the doors, he was still asleep during his break. There was confusion as to why no one else closed the doors. The other crew members expected Stanley to close them because he was scheduled to close them. Before the ship dropped moorings the First Officer should have stayed on the car deck to make sure the doors were closed, but trying to stay on schedule he left the car deck and went to the bridge before the doors were closed. This was normal practice, and the final factor was that from his position on the bridge the captain was not able to see the bow doors clearly, leading him to assume that they were closed.[citation needed]

A few years earlier, one of the Herald's sister ships sailed from Dover to Zeebrugge with the bow doors open, but she made it to the destination without incident.[citation needed] It was therefore believed that leaving the bow doors open alone should not have caused the ship to capsize.

After looking at possible reasons for reduced clearance between the doors and water line, investigators found that there was a problem during the loading of the car decks. The loading ramp at Zeebrugge was too low to reach the upper car deck at high tide. To clear the gap, the captain put sea water into the front ballast tanks to lower the ship's bow. The clearance between bow doors and water line was 2.5 metres. The problem arose due to the fact that Dover-Zeebrugge was not her regular route. Had the Herald survived she was to have been modified to avoid this procedure.[1]

Another factor that contributed to the capsizing was the depth of the water. When a vessel is underway, the movement under it creates low pressure, which has the effect of increasing the vessel's draft. This effect is known as ship "squat". In deep water the effect is small. However, in shallow water it is greater, because as the water passes underneath it would move faster and cause the draft to be increased further. This reduced the clearance between the bow doors and water line to 1.5 meters. Although the bow doors were open and they were 1.5 meters above the water, it was still not enough to cause the ship to capsize, so the investigators looked at the height and volume of water produced by the bow wave.

After extensive tests, the investigators found that when the ship travelled at a speed of 18 knots (33 km/h), the wave was enough to engulf the bow doors. This caused a "step change": if the ship was below 18 knots (33 km/h) and not in shallow water, people on the car deck would probably have had time to notice the bow doors were open and close them, but even this did not cause the final capsizing.

Almost all ships are divided into watertight compartments below the water line so that in the event of flooding, the water would be confined to one compartment, keeping the ship afloat. The Herald's design had an open car deck with no dividers, allowing vehicles to drive in and out easily, but this allowed water to flood the whole of the car deck, putting the ship in danger. As she turned the water flooded to one side and the vessel capsized.

In October 1986, a coroner's inquest jury into the capsizing returned verdicts of unlawful killing. Many of the individuals involved at the company were prosecuted for manslaughter, as was the operating company, P&O European Ferries (Dover) Ltd (for a discussion of the legal issues, see corporate manslaughter). The disaster was one of a number that influenced thinking leading to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998.

1987 Survivor's Tale
From BBC Online News – BBC.CO.UK

Nineteen-year-old Simon Osborne was returning from a day trip to Belgium on 6 March
1987, when his ferry capsized off the port of Zeebrugge. He was trapped inside the
Herald of Free Enterprise for over two hours before being rescued and taken to safety.
Two of the seven friends with him died in the disaster.
We all boarded the ferry in high spirits - we'd had a good day out in Ostend. We went
our separate ways and arranged to meet in the bar later on. I had to get some duty-free
and I was queuing at the perfume counter when it became clear that something was
beginning to go wrong. The ship jolted - quite violently, but it didn't seem significant
enough to raise any fears at that particular moment. But then within a few seconds
there was a second much more violent jolt and the ship literally tipped over as if you
were knocking over a glass of water - it seemed that quick.
I was thrown onto my back and I slid down the floor of the lounge. I came to a halt on
the front of the bar - which as the ship had capsized had gone from vertical to
horizontal. So I was actually standing upright before the water started coming into the
ship. By this stage the lights were still on and I saw some horrific sights.
People were falling from one side of the ship to the other - somersaulting down. Bottles
of perfume and whisky were flying around - nothing appeared to have been bolted
down. You can imagine what it was like turning something that size over - all the debris
was crashing around about my ears as I stood there.
And then I saw the water burst though the portholes and the deck doors. I was
absolutely terrified. By this stage all the lights had gone out and I felt the freezing cold
water hit my legs and I floated up with it. I was fairly convinced the ship was going to
sink and I'd be trapped and almost certainly perish. But that feeling only lasted until it
became clear the ship finally - luckily - came to rest on a sandbank.
The noise was horrendous from start to finish - a terrible, unbelievable, metallic grinding
noise, breaking glass and the screams of people who were injured, falling or terrified. I
thought I should keep as calm as I could and a certain element of calm did come over
me when I was floating in the water.
It then became decision time. I was trapped in the lounge area of the ship. There were a
lot of people around me, but as time wore on it became clear that many were dying,
presumably from the cold.
I could either stay where I was and risk dying of hypothermia or make a move to try
and at least get to a place within the ship that I thought I could be rescued from. I could
see in the not too far distance - maybe 20 or 30 m away - where windows had been
broken and ropes had been lowered down.
So I pulled myself through Lifejackets, through the debris of the disaster, and
unfortunately through dead bodies, to get to beneath a window. By the time I'd done
that there were rescue teams in the ship and very quickly a harness was put around me
and I was winched onto the side of the ferry.
I was very lucky to get out alive.


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Ashley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashley said...

What a deadly experience was that! You must be getting nightmares since the ferry disaster. Very lucky too for getting a second life!