DOVER, England (AP) _ A coroner on Monday opened an inquest into the deaths of 188 people in the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, telling the jury that if it returns manslaughter verdicts, criminal charges may be filed.

The 11-member jury will be asked to give verdicts on each of the victims who died when the Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise overturned just outside the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on March 6. A 189th victim comes under West German jurisdiction.

''One potential verdict you might have to consider, and perhaps the most controversial, is unlawful killing,'' Kent Coroner Richard Sturt told the jury at the start of Britain's biggest-ever inquest.

A spokesman for the coroner's office said if the jury found the victims were unlawfully killed, papers would be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions to determine whether charges should be made.

The Department of Transport said during the official inquiry that there would be no prosecutions of individuals or ferry operators Townsend Thoresen.

However, the coroner's spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that inquiry had been into the capsizing of the vessel and not into the deaths of individual victims.

Sturt said other possible verdicts were deaths by accident, misadventure or an open verdict.

He said the main cause of death was drowning, although there were some cases of multiple injuries.

''In the next few weeks, you are going to hear some of the most harrowing tales ever told in a British court,'' Sturt told the jury.

Survivors are among the more than 400 witnesses who could be called to give evidence during the inquest in the port city of Dover.

Also giving evidence will be the three men found ''seriously negligent'' by the government inquiry into the disaster: Capt. David Lewry, First Officer Leslie Sabel and Assistant Boatswain Mark Stanley.