Nightmare in the dark
IT was at 6.05pm on Friday March 6 that the Herald of Free Enterprise set sail from Zeebrugge. The weather was good, the sea was calm, with little or no swell, and there was a light easterly breeze. At 6.24pm the ship passed the outer mole of Zeebrugge harbour. Four minutes later she had capsized. Survivors told how the ship listed to one side, then appeared to right itself before lurching to that side again and going over. The water which rushed in destroyed both the normal and the emergency electrical supply and the ship was in total darkness. Floors and ceilings became walls, portholes and windows were above and below and became barriers to immediate escape, corridors became deep voids down which people fell. Passengers frantically used the tables and chairs which were fixed to what were now walls to climb through the water to find pockets of air at the ‘top’. Some managed to get their fingers into what felt like small crevices to make their way up. Only later would they discover that the crevices were gaps in the slats in which had been the ceiling. The first crew members who escaped then spent hours in the cold, wet conditions pulling others to safety. They had to smash windows, which created another hazard – pieces of glass falling down onto those below – but which would be their only hope of escape. Particular credit was paid to four crewmen who saved many people. Fire hoses were unreeled and dangled down so that those below could climb to safety. Knotted ropes were used in the same way. As the water level rose, and waves crashed around them, survivors saw bodies being swept along. An unconscious woman floated by two crew members who grabbed her, pulled her out and revived her with mouth-tomouth resuscitation. Some of the crew stood on each others’ shoulders to form a human ladder and four people climbed to safety that way. Rescuers braved the freezing conditions on the upturned side of the ship to pull people out and guide them to rescue boats surrounding the Herald. Helicopters lit the scene. “In the end we were so exhausted we couldn’t do any more,” said one of the crew who helped rescue people. “It was taking six of us to pull out one person. Every person on that ship was brilliant. You can’t express how good they were, how they worked together.” It was a month after the tragedy that the wreck of the ferry was righted using huge cranes, and many of the bodies were recovered, most from the cafeteria area. Coroner Richard Sturt went to Zeebrugge to help with the organisation of the identification process. A total of 193 people perished.