Car Ferry Disaster Remembered

5 March 2017, 12:17 | Updated: 5 March 2017, 12:20

30th anniversary of sinking

Services are being held in the Belgium port of Zebrugge and in Dover to remember the 193 people who died 30 years ago when the Herald of Free Enterprise sank.

At about 6pm on March 6 1987, the Townsend Thoresen roll-on, roll-off ferry set out from Zebrugge to Dover. The bow doors had not been closed properly and the boat rolled on to its side.

Heroics by crew and passengers led to the majority of those on board surviving, but more than 150 passengers and nearly 40 crew on the British-flagged vessel died.

Familes of those who drowned will remember them at St Mary The Virgin Church in Dover on the exact day of the worst peacetime British maritime disaster ever. A remembrance service is also being held in Zebrugge.

Among those attending the service in Dover will be Kim Spooner, whose aunt and uncle Neil "Billy'' Spooner, 37, and Mary Smith, 44, died after taking advantage of a cut-price Continental day-trip offer in a newspaper.

Ms Spooner, 38, from Essex, said: "I was eight years old at the time and I can remember it like it was yesterday. I knew that it was something absolutely terrible.

"The worst bit was waiting for news because we were obviously in a time when there were no mobile phones and no internet.

"For them, it was a spur of the moment trip. It wasn't a planned thing. They lived in Essex so lived quite close to the coast. It was fate. They could have gone the day before or the day after.

"Their deaths have completely affected my life, and how I form relationships. They were like a second mum and dad to me, and we were a really close-knit unit.

"I have never recovered from it to be honest. I get quite angry when I hear it described as a freak accident because it wasn't. There were people and corporations to blame. It's as simple as that.''

A public inquiry confirmed the ferry had left Zeebrugge with its bow doors open, allowing water to flood the car deck, and the crew member responsible for closing them was asleep at the time.

A number of the heroes of the disaster received awards, including a George Medal for ex-policeman Andrew Parker.

He became known as "the human bridge'' after saving his wife, his 12-year-old daughter and about 20 other passengers who walked over his body to safety.

Retired chaplain Bill McCrea officiated at four of the victims' funeral services, including a 17-year-old boy who died in the disaster just two weeks after finishing nautical college.

Mr McCrea, now 75, said: "I'd dealt with many traumatic incidents in my role as a chaplain, but this sudden tragedy and the enormity of it put my pastoral ministry to the test.''

Townsend Thoresen, which later became P&O European Ferries, was severely criticised in the public inquiry report published later in 1987.

In October 1987, an inquest jury returned verdicts of unlawful killing.

A manslaughter trial began at the Old Bailey in September 1990 involving eight defendants, including the ferry company and three former directors.

But the case collapsed a month later after the judge directed the jury to acquit them.