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Life Returning To Normal, But Beyond The Seawall A Grim Reminder

March 11, 1987

ZEEBRUGGE, Belgium (AP) _ Inside the white concrete seawalls of this busy port, dozens of cargo ships, fishing vessels, tugboats and passenger ferries maneuver easily through calm waters.

Under the bright blue skies of a chilly winter day, harbor life appears normal.

But a few hundred yards beyond a squatty light tower on the northern seawall, almost out of sight from the port, remains a grim reminder of the region’s worst ferry disaster of modern times.

There lies the capsized Herald of Free Enterprise, half-submerged in 30 feet of icy water.

The 427-foot orange, white and green vessel rests on its port side, the rust-colored keel facing south, the stern pointed toward the open waters of the North Sea.

Waves splash against empty seats on the outer deck, washing over metal handrails that passengers gripped as they watched the ferry pull out of Berth No. 12 on the evening of March 6.

Inside, buried under piles of debris, are believed to be 81 bodies. Fifty- three bodies already have been recovered, putting the anticipated death toll at 134 in a disaster that likely will be investigated for months by the Belgian and British governments.

Three salvage ships surround the stricken ferry, preparing for the complex task of righting the vessel, pumping out the tons of water inside, removing the remaining bodies and towing it into port.

The work of identifying the bodies already recovered is still under way.

With the Herald of Free Enterprise lying at the outer edge of the navigation channel, passengers aboard incoming and outgoing ferries can catch a close-up view of the stricken ship.

Police stop sightseers from driving too close up the breakwater, and private boats are kept away from the wreck.

At the adjacent Zeebrugge naval base, where some of the rescue and recovery operations have been coordinated, helmeted military police turn away reporters and curious townspeople.

Even at the Townsend Thoresen ferry terminal, where passenger and freight ferries are coming and going on schedule, the ferry company keeps anyone except passengers and investigators from standing near the docks.

A British television crew that was filming the departure of a Townsend Thoresen passenger ferry Monday evening was chased away by angry crew members.

Despite the restrictions, hundreds of people from the Zeebrugge area seek vantage points for watching the recovery operation.

All along one stretch of road near the port, cars are lined up and people peer through binoculars at the capsized ferry in the distance.

The atmosphere of crisis and alarm that prevailed last weekend, when hopes of finding more survivors still lingered, has given way to a kind of normalcy.

There are no more ambulances racing with blue lights flashing from the port to nearby hospitals. The Red Cross signs that marked the way to a temporary morgue have been pulled down. The brown brick church where relatives of the victims prayed together at a special service Monday has emptied.

Around the church, the cobblestone sidewalks of Zeebrugge are quiet again.

Update hourly