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URGENT Floating Birthday Party Turns To Tragedy; At Least 26 Dead

August 20, 1989

LONDON (AP) _ A barge rammed into a pleasure boat, sheared off the top deck and sank it in the River Thames early Sunday, killing at least 26 people, police said. At least 78 people survived.

The barge’s captain and second mate were arrested, but police later said the two would not be detained. It was not clear whether charges would be filed.

Police Commander John Purnell, speaking at Scotland Yard, said the there were 26 people known dead, including one woman found upstream. Most of the dead were teen-agers or in their 20s, he said.

Earlier, police said 29 bodies had been found and there were 87 survivors. There was no explanation given for the discrepancy. The detective heading the inquiry, Michael Purchase, said earlier the toll could be as high as 60.

″It could be days or even weeks before the full extent of the tragedy is known,″ Purnell said.

Scotland Yard said the engine room and bilges had still to be searched for bodies. It said salvage crews found no survivors.

Police said 78 people got off the vessel alive but it was unclear how many people boarded the luxury river cruiser when it sailed at 1 a.m. on a clear, warm night, planning to return at dawn.

The uncertainty of the casualty toll arose from the absence of a passenger list and conflicting estimates of the numbers of people aboard. Scotland Yard said the boat, licensed for 149 passengers and two crew, was carrying 120 to 150 people. Ken Dwan, owner of the Marchioness’ company, said there were no more than 110.

Guests had been celebrating the 26th birthday party for London banker Antonio Vasconcellos when it sank near Southwark Bridge, in the heart of the capital, friends said. Vasconcellos was unaccounted for, police said.

Dwan said the collision between the 80-ton double-decker river boat and a dredger 18 times heavier was like ″a tank rolling over″ a small car.

An inspection by divers showed the vessel’s top deck was sheared off.

The huge Thames Barrier, built across the river near its mouth to control seasonal flooding, was lowered to hold back the tide and ease the treacherous conditions under which rescuers worked.

The five additional crew members of the 1,475-ton Bowbelle, a sand-and- gravel dredging barge, were questioned as witnesses about the collision, Scotland Yard said.

Survivors said people were dancing, socializing and enjoying the floating birthday party when the Bowbelle, one of the largest registered vessels on the Thames, crashed into the rear of the Marchioness, knocking it sideways, then hitting it again and running straight over it.

The Marchioness sank within two minutes in 25 feet of water and came to rest near Southwark Bridge, in central London’s financial district, shortly before 2 a.m., police said.

Survivors said the 85-foot-long Marchioness, built during World War II, was privately chartered by a London modeling agency, Synchro. Vasconcellos was the guest of honor. The connection between the agency and Vasconcellos was not immediately clear.

Many of those dancing on the top deck jumped or were thrown overboard, shouting and screaming, and battled strong tides to reach shore. Others, disco-dancing below deck, were trapped.

Art student Mike Mosbacher, 22, said he dived out of an open window on the top deck when he saw the barge coming.

″It hit us in the side, smashed into us and went straight over us,″ he said. ″The people downstairs, there’s no way they would have got out.″

Survivors were taken to three local hospitals. Doctors said the most serious injury was a broken leg.

″Everyone had been quite relaxed,″ said Annette Russell, 26. ″People were chatting and dancing to the music. It all happened terribly quickly. We were rammed from behind ... and as we tried to get out of the situation, I think the tide took the boat over and it turned and sank.″

The government ordered an inquiry and the search continued. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher returned from vacation in Austria and immediately boarded a river patrol boat to visit the scene. Queen Elizabeth II, vacationing in Scotland, sent condolences.

The 260-foot-long Bowbelle, operated by South Coast Shipping, works in the Thames estuary and the North Sea, a spokesman for the firm said. He would not comment on the tragedy.

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