This Day In History: March 6

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A British ferry leaving Zeebrugge, Belgium, capsizes, drowning 188 people, on March 6, 1987. Shockingly poor safety procedures led directly to this deadly disaster. Lord Justice Barry Sheen, an investigator of the accident, later said of it, from top to bottom, the body corporate was affected with the disease of sloppiness.

The Herald of Free Enterprise ferry was an 8,000-ton ship owned by Townsend Car Ferries, Ltd. It usually carried passengers and vehicles from Dover, England, to Calais, France, and back. However, in March 1987, the ferry was transferred into service on the company’s Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Dover route. It made one of its first trips on the new route on a Friday morning with 543 people, 84 cars and 36 trucks on board as it headed across the English Channel to Dover.

The Herald was designed to allow vehicles to drive on and off the ship quickly and easily. Still, in order to save even more time, it was the unofficial policy of the ship’s crew to leave port with the bow doors open and to close them as the ship was already moving, a practice that allowed a small, but normally inconsequential, amount of water into the ferry. The March 6 trip left port with the doors open and the person assigned to close them asleep in a bunk. (It was later revealed that this, too, was not unusual.) The crew members who were supposed to take over this assignment were unable to close the doors as the Herald pushed out to sea.

As crew members frantically pounded the doors with hammers, water flooded into the cargo hold. The vehicles in the hold were tossed back and forth in the water, and a sudden shift in weight caused the ship to tip to the port side. Within minutes, the Herald capsized. Many passengers were thrown into the sea and quickly drowned in the cold 30-foot-deep water. Life preservers kept some afloat until rescuers were able to reach them.

Still other passengers remained trapped inside the Herald, some for more than a day, until rescuers could reach them. Ultimately, more than 400 people survived the disaster, including the ship’s captain and first officer, though both were suspended for their lax safety procedures. The disaster also resulted in the establishment of new and more extensive safety regulations for ferries crossing the English Channel.