Remembering the MS Herald of Free Enterprise Accident

Today, 6 March, is the anniversary of the capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise. Although this accident has never been a part of my research, it is one that I feel a particular connection to having been on the ship many times.

For those unfamiliar with the accident, the key points (taken from Wikipedia) are that the ship was a roll-on/roll-off (RORO) ferry which capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew. The eight-deck car and passenger ferry was owned by Townsend Thoresen, designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route, and there were no watertight compartments. The ship left harbour with her bow door open, and the sea immediately flooded the decks; within minutes, she was lying on her side in shallow water. The immediate cause of the sinking was found to be negligence by the assistant boatswain, who was asleep in his cabin when he should have been closing the bow door. However, the official inquiry placed more blame on his supervisors and a general culture of poor communication in Townsend Thoresen. The vessel was salvaged, put up for sale, and sold to Naviera SA Kingstown on 30 September 1987, renamed Flushing Range. It was taken to Taiwan on 22 March 1988 to be scrapped.

During my childhood, my family had a caravan (static mobile home) in the South of France and used to go there every summer holiday for 4 to 5 weeks and many Easter holidays too. These trips always involved taking a ferry crossing between Dover and Calais (other than a few exceptions). The ferry crossing was an important break as my father would already have driven a few hours from my grandparents in Surrey to Dover and upon disembarking at Calais would then drive non-stop (other than for petrol) through the night until we got to our destination about 700 miles and 12 hours later. The ferry crossing was the time for a break and to have dinner (on the outward journey, breakfast on the way back). After eating, there would usually be a bit of time for going to the duty-free shop or, particularly as I got older, to be able to wander around (and especially outside) the ship. I used to love being outside, listening to music on my Walkman, watching passing ships (or hovercraft) and the approaching coastline. I even enjoyed the whole embarking and disembarking process.

I can remember the excitement when we made the crossing in the early 80s when the Herald of Free Enterprise and its sister ships, Spirit of Free Enterprise and Pride of Free Enterprise were introduced. Although much smaller than modern cruise ships or some of the other cross channel ferries that would subsequently be introduced, to me, they were huge and much more exciting than the predecessors. Despite being sister ships, I remember always the anticipation as we arrived in Dover or Calais to see which of the ships we would be on and being particularly happy when it was Herald – though I cannot remember why.

When disaster struck the Herald, I was aware of the news that evening and even remember trying to follow events on long wave radio broadcasts – not easy in amongst the hills of rural Shropshire. By the next morning there were clear images and more details about the death toll when I watched the TV news. I was saddened about the loss of the ship itself as much as the people on board. This may seem an odd thing to say (I remember Jeremy Clarkson says something similar about the Concorde crash of 2000 and draws a parallel with the sinking of the Titanic as I discuss in my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan), but it was based on my personal experiences of having been on this particular vessel, not knowing any of the victims, and the nature of how already the disaster itself was being measured in numbers (the number of fatalities) rather than personal stories. It is this aspect that drove me in how I approached with dealing the huge loss of life in the JL123 crash and how I wanted to humanise it in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan: Responses to the Flight JL123 Crash.

In relation to the sinking, St Mary’s Church, Dover houses a permanent memorial to the disaster. There is also a stained glass window dedicated to three of the crewmen who died during the disaster in the village of St Margaret’s at Cliffe. I hope to visit these sites one day. As far as I am aware there has not been any modifications to the memorials so I couldn’t include it, other than a passing mention in a table, in my article about modifications to public transportation memorials.

To the victims of the disaster itself, may you rest in peace, and to their families and others caught up in the disaster, I wish you all well.

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