Night­mare in the dark

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - THE HERALD TRAGEDY – 20 YEARS ON -

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.

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