Twenty-nine years ago today, on March 6, 1987, a terrible and completely preventable tragedy occurred in the North Sea, just off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. At about 6:00 that evening a car ferry called the Herald of Free Enterprise, owned and operated by Townsend Thoresen Company, left the dock at Zeebrugge with 459 passengers on board, their cars and a number of cargo trucks. She was headed for Dover, on the coast of England. Many of the passengers had been tempted by a recent advertisement in the British newspapers offering super-cheap trips to the continent and back. Unbeknownst to them, 193 of them had taken their last step on dry land. Minutes after leaving port the Herald of Free Enterprise took on water and capsized, and for an abysmally stupid and outrageous reason: a crew member neglected to close the huge doors at the front of the ship before it left the dock. Instead of doing his duty, this crew member went back to his cabin to sleep.
Gross human error was unquestionably the cause of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, but explaining just how the crewman’s fatal mistake ultimately caused 193 deaths takes a bit of physics to understand. Large-scale car ferries of the kind used in Europe are basically big floating garages. Passengers drove their cars aboard, got out, went to a passenger area for the duration of the voyage, then at their destination would drive their cars off. I crossed the English Channel on such a ferry from Portsmouth to Calais in 2000. The Herald of Free Enterprise, built in 1980, had two passenger car decks meant for simultaneous loading from two different angles. However, the port facilities at Zeebrugge weren’t built for this. The ferry operators used the lower deck only, but in order to couple with the ramp at Zeebrugge, the ship’s front ballast tanks were filled. In simpler terms, the ship’s bow was sitting lower in the water than it normally did.
This computer animation illustrates exactly how the disaster occurred. Not pictured: the human stupidity that allowed this to happen.
The ship left its dock stern-first, then turned around, headed toward the ocean, and began to pick up speed. With the front loading doors yawning open and the bow sitting low in the water, it’s not surprising that the ship began to take on water like a big scoop. An effect of hydrodynamics called “free surface effect” explains why the water rushing in led to a quick capsize. Essentially, the water pouring in “sloshed” against the back of the car deck, destroying the vessel’s natural stability. Within four minutes of leaving the dock at Zeebrugge, the Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over, dashing hundreds of its passengers into freezing water. Many of the 193 victims died of hypothermia. It was the worst maritime disaster involving a British ship since the early part of the 20th century.
How did the doors come to be left open? It seems to have been a case of “not my problem.” The assistant boatswain, whose job it was to close the doors as the ship left port, inexplicably went back to his cabin after the loading was completed and was evidently asleep during the departure. The first officer, who should have made sure the doors were closed, was in a hurry to get to his post on the bridge and simply assumed the boatswain would arrive to do the job shortly. None of the other crew members thought it was their job to close the doors. The vessel’s captain couldn’t see from the bridge whether the doors were closed or not, and there was, astoundingly, no instrument or indicator light that would have alerted him. A combination of gross negligence, bad workplace procedures and design flaws allowed the fatal physics of the episode to run unchecked. The result was a horrifying disaster whose images played out for days in the European and world press. I remember when the disaster happened, and the TV pictures of flailing passengers being plucked from the icy North Sea waters were pretty grim.
In this view of the Herald of Free Enterprise, taken three years before the disaster, you can see the car area doors that were left open in March 1987, causing the tragedy.
After the disaster, the Herald of Free Enterprise herself was somewhat cursed. The ferry line quickly salvaged the vessel, which had capsized in shallow water, and assumed she could be sold and put back into service. However, no one wanted to buy the hulk where so many people had met such an unnecessary end. Ultimately it was decided the Herald would be towed to Taiwan and cut up for scrap. While on that voyage she was caught up in the Great Storm of 1987 and badly damaged. The ruined hulk finally did slink into a Taiwan harbor in March 1988, meeting her end under blowtorches in a scrap yard. The ferry line, Townsend Thoresen, was so damaged commercially by the bad press of the disaster that it had to change its name and rebrand itself. The Herald’s sister ships were refitted, renamed and extensively overhauled. The last of them was sailing until last year (2015).
The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster is one of those tragedies that shocks the conscience. Even a kid playing with a toy boat in a bathtub would know what would happen if you try to sail a huge ship with its front doors yawning open. That professional adults, with the lives of hundreds of innocent people in their hands, would fail to understand this is nothing less than a testament to the awesome power of human stupidity–and how, in the wrong place at the wrong time, it can be very lethal.