TRANSPORTATION

Heroism—and horror

MARY McIVER March 23 1987
TRANSPORTATION

Heroism—and horror

MARY McIVER March 23 1987

Heroism—and horror

TRANSPORTATION

Survivors spoke with awe of the heroism. One man had stretched his body across a water-filled corridor while at least 20 people scrambled over him to safety. Another rescued a four-month-old baby by gripping it with his teeth. Their acts, and the swift response of international rescue crews, blunted the edge of the disaster that occurred on March 6 when the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized just outside Belgium’s Zeebrugge harbor, hurling passengers and vehicles into the icy waters of the English Channel. But in the days following the tragedy, there remained the grim reality of its toll: of the 543 people who had been on board, 134 were dead or presumed dead. Last week grieving friends and relatives of the victims attended memorial services, abandoning hope that anyone else would be found alive.

At sea, salvage crews swarmed over the rust-colored hull of the overturned ship, preparing for the grisly task of recovering the 80 bodies presumed trapped inside. And in Britain debates

began about the possible causes of the tragedy, with speculation ranging from the carelessness of a seaman to faults in the ferry’s design. Inevitably, that raised concerns about the safety of similarly constructed ferries operat-

ing elsewhere, including those in Canadian waters. By week’s end Britain had launched an official inquiry under the direction of one of the country’s most eminent naval jurists, Sir Barry Sheen. Its goal: to find out why a ferryboat, from a class of vessels widely assumed to be as stable as buses, should suddenly tip over.

The immediate cause seemed clear: as the 8,000-ton ship cleared the har-

bor and picked up full speed heading into the open sea, water flooded through open bow doors onto the main vehicle deck, making the ship list, then capsize, in less than a minute. One expert said that even a small amount of water can destabilize a ferry half as wide as a football field. David Walker, research associate with Halifax’s Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, compared the effect to what happens when water is poured onto a tray:. “Put a quarter inch of water on a canapé tray and just try to hold it.”

The Herald left port with its loading doors open, a practice permitted by its owner, the British ferry company Townsend Thoresen PLC, as a means of clearing exhaust fumes from the car decks. But according to some survivors’ accounts, the doors were left open too long, and then the crew could not close them when it tried. A truck driver reported that crew members were hitting the doors with sledgehammers in an attempt to close them. There were also reports that the ship’s ballast of fuel and water was concentrated in the bow, which left the forward doorway dangerously low and vulnerable to scooping up water. As well, some experts said that the traditional stability of ferries is being sacrificed as they become highrise structures with more and more decks stacked above each other.

New superferries twice the size of the stricken Herald should he in operation on the English Channel late this year

But ferry disasters are rare, even in the busy Channel. The last serious mishap there was in December, 1982, when the Townsend Thoresen car ferry European Gateway collided with a British Rail ferry, and four crew members and three passengers aboard the Gateway died. Accidents are even

more infrequent in Canadian waters, where there is not the same competitive pressure for rapid loadings and departures. The last major disaster involving a Canadian ferry was in 1970, when the S.S. Patrick Morris went down in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence between North Sydney, N.S., and Port

aux Basques, Nfld., drowning the captain and three engineers. That incident was somewhat similar to the one involving the Herald: water forced open the rear loading doors of the ship and flooded the main deck.

In recent years Canadian ferry operators on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have introduced such safety features as double sets of watertight doors and sealed-off vehicle decks to minimize the risk of accidents. Still, some experts maintain that the Herald disaster was likely caused by factors other than the design of the ship. Declared John Carter, a Montreal-based naval architect: “You are not looking at a fault in design on that ship. You are looking at a method of operation.”

For their part, officials at Townsend Thoresen said that despite the questions surrounding the disaster, they intend to go ahead with a $175-million plan to build two so-called superferries. With double the capacity of the Herald, the 26,000-ton ships will be able to carry 2,300 passengers and 650 cars each. And as salvage crews worked on the capsized Herald, company officials estimated that the huge new ferries could be plying the Channel’s busy shipping lanes by fall.

MARY McIVER with IAN MATHER in London and CHRIS WOOD in Halifax