"Herald of Free Enterprise is a funny name given that it was the pursuit of profit at the cost of safety that caused the accident."
Despite a calm sea and a clear view, the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized on March 6, 1987 at ten past eight in the evening. The accident happened just off the Belgian coast, near the harbour of Zeebrugge from where the ferry had left.
Although the ship did not send an SOS signal, the rescue troops were there fast. Within three hours 360 people had been saved from the sinking ship.
The Herald of Free Enterprise had left Dover earlier that day around 11:30 in the morning. The standard passage was concluded late in the afternoon. The car ferry had two hours to load passengers and vehicles. The 17:30 departure was delayed because of the large number of passengers, thanks to a special offer. The ship had a crew of 80 and carried 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses, and 47 trucks.
The Zeebrugge harbour is small so it took the car ferry a lot of time to manoeuvre out to the sea. Once it arrived there, it happened. The bow door, which was the entrance to the car deck, had been left wide open. At open sea, the ship speeded up to 18 knots, which caused tons of water to gulf into the ship's interior. The immense water mass caused imbalance which made the ferry capsize on a sand bank just off the coast near Zeebrugge.
Chaos ruled the ship for minutes. On the lower decks passengers fought each other in panic because everyone wanted to get out but no one could. To add to the turmoil, the lights went out and the water kept on gulfing in.
But Belgian rescue workers arrived quickly and started saving the passengers with ships and helicopters. That night 408 people were saved and 50 dead bodies were taken from the Herald of Free Enterprise. In total the death toll would be nearly 200.
After weeks Smit International salvaged the ship, which was taken to the Far East where it was demolished. Investigation led to put the blame entirely on ship owner Townsend Thoresen, who had purchased the ship in March from P&O. The main reason for the Townsend Thoresen guilt was the warning one of their captains had issued right before the disaster. He had reported that the procedure to close the doors was alarmingly thoughtless and that he also had no opportunity to double-check if the doors were really closed. The assistent bosun responsible for the doors was sleeping at the time of the disaster. The investigation concluded that the Townsend Thoresen board was "infected with sloppiness":
"The directors did not have any proper comprehension of what their duties were. There appears to have been a lack of thought about the way in which the Herald ought to have been organized for the Dover-Zeebrugge run. All concerned in management, from the members of the Board of Directors down to the junior superintendents, were guilty of fault in that all must be regarded as sharing responsibility for the failure of management. From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness."