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Numbers Conflict on Ferry Casualties

March 14, 1987

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Conflicting information on the number of people missing from last week’s ferry disaster prompted fears that more than 134 people may have died, officials said today.

Belgian Transport minister Herman De Croo told the senate Friday that 164 people were still missing from the March 6 capsizing of the British ferry Herald of Free Enterprise off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. The vessel’s owners, Townsend Thoresen, maintained that 79 people were missing and presumed dead. The company says 55 bodies have been recovered.

De Croo’s spokesman Henrik Van Der Auwera said today that ″to have the exact numbers we will have to wait until the boat is righted,″ which will take at least another two weeks. He said De Croo’s figures were approximate.

The transport minister made his statements to the senators based on information from the Belgian maritime inspection services and the British police, Van Der Auwera said.

Van Der Auwera said of the confusion in the days following the disaster: ″There were different lists in hospitals and first-aid centers, and the people involved have not always had the time to compare the lists,″ causing some names to be registered twice.

De Croo’s information was based also on police records. Van Der Auwera admitted that ″police can get a lot more inquiries than there are actually people missing.″

He further said some people might have sneaked on board and not have shown up on either the passenger list or the survivor list. Townsend Thoresen says there were 543 passengers and crew aboard the vessel when it capsized, but De Croo’s figures would mean there were more people aboard.

De Croo said there were only 349 known survivors of the disaster. Townsend Thoresen and the provincial authorities maintained 409 people survived.

According to Townsend Thoresen and the provincial authorities, 55 bodies have been brought to shore, of which 49 have been positively identified. De Croo told the senate only 45 people were confirmed dead. Several sources in Zeebrugge however said the number of confirmed dead stood at 55.

The spokesman of the ferry company, Jurgen Goller, said today that Townsend Thoresen would stick with the numbers given to them by the ″local authorities, who are in charge of the rescue operation.″

″They are the best (figures) to our knowledge,″ he said.

Salvage work meanwhile continued on schedule as the weather remained ″good and calm,″ said Goller.

Weather forecasts indicated winds will increase to a fresh breeze over the weekend, possibly hampering the salvage operation.

Smit Tak, the Dutch salvage company, today started driving the first of 16 steel girders, each 30 yards long and weighing 22 tons apiece, into the seabed, a job that will take them about eight days, said Goller.

The girders will be used to anchor two barges with powerful hydraulic cranes for righting the 7,951-ton vessel.

Smit Tak also continued to weld steel loops to the vessel’s deck. Steel cables will be attached to the loops so that the hydraulic cranes can pull the vessel onto its keel.

If the weather does not affect the salvage operation, the half-submerged ship will be righted by the end of the month.

Townsend Thoresen has said that the recovery of the bodies still trapped in the hull was the first objective of the salvagers. About 70 barrels of chemicals are also trapped in the hull, but water readings showed there was no pollution from the cargo.

The cause of the accident is still under investigation.

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