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Ferry Owners Say Water Rushed Through Loading Doors

March 8, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ Owners of the British ferry that capsized off Belgium said Sunday water rushed in through the vessel’s loading doors, and several survivors insisted the huge bow doors were never properly closed.

The tabloid News of The World quoted grieving relatives as saying an assistant boatswain had been sedated and separated from the rest of the injured victims at a Belgian hospital after shouting ″It’s my fault, it’s my fault. I didn’t lock them properly.″

Paul Ellis, a spokesman for ferry owners Townsend Thoresen in Belgium, confirmed that assistant boatswain Marc Stanley, 28, was ″in a state of emotional shock″ and ″blaming himself.″

Company officials said Stanley, who was in charge of the doors on the ferry, was being flown to Britain Sunday night. Stanley left St. Jan Hospital near Brugge shortly after being questioned by two Belgian lawyers.

The ferry rolled onto its side Friday night outside the North Sea port of Zeebrugge in Belgium. Of 543 people aboard, 408 survived and 82 are missing. Fifty-three bodies have been recovered.

Britain and Belgium are trying to determine the cause of the disaster.

Three truck drivers who had been aboard the Herald of Free Enterprise said the ferry sailed 10 to 15 minutes late because the crew was having trouble closing the doors.

″They were even trying to close them with sledgehammers,″ one of the drivers, Ian Calderwood, told Britain’s domestic news agency Press Association.

″The boat started taking in water as soon as she took off. The hold was flooding... I’m certain this disaster happened because she took in too much water,″ he said.

″As the captain made a right hand turn to avoid the sand bank outside the harbor, all the water shifted to one side and turned the boat over. There was no noise, no bang. We didn’t hit anything,″ Calderwood said.

Fellow survivor Brian Gibbons, 39, added: ″They put out three emergency calls for the ship’s carpenter. Then all of a sudden, the boat turned over.″

Townsend Thoresen spokesman Paul Ovington said the company has ″accepted that it is something to do with the doors.″

″That is how the water rushed in because there is no other hole in the ship,″ he said.

But he added: ″Even if the doors were open it is for the public inquiry to decide whether that was the only factor.″

Robin Kember, boatswain of the Herald’s sister ship, the Spirit of Free Enterprise, said: ″I have never recorded a time when we have ventured to sea with bow doors open... They are closed hydraulically in the berth. If ever the hydraulics leak, everything stops until it’s repaired. You don’t touch the doors at sea.″

Anthony Preston, naval editor of the authoritative Jane’s Defense Weekly, said it was an ″accident that should not have happened.″

Preston said water-tight stabilizing compartments should be added to the side of the ferries to enable them to remain upright for at least 30 minutes in case of flooding, giving passengers time to escape.

By most accounts, the Herald of Free Enterprise tipped over in one minute.

The current design allows the box-like ferries to take on hundreds of cars and trucks in 30 minutes. If stabilizing compartments were added, it would cost millions of dollars and probably make the vessels uneconomical by extending load time to three or four hours.

Legislator John Prescott, the opposition Labor Party’s spokesman on employment, called for regulations barring ferries from sailing with open bow doors and requiring that all trucks be tied down during the crossing.

″I know from my own experience on ferries we tend to leave the doors open longer,″ said Prescott, a former steward on merchant ships. ″If it is a calm sea you tend to say, ‘Well, it doesn’t really matter, we don’t have to lash as much.’ There’s a lot more tightening up that could be done.″

Townsend Thoresen, the major British cross-Channel operator, carries 10 million passengers and 1.5 million vehicles a year.

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