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Prince Charles Flies Over Capsized Ferry

March 11, 1987

ZEEBRUGGE, Belgium (AP) _ Britian’s Prince Charles today flew over the capsized Herald of Free Enterprise ferry before meeting with rescue officials and hospitalized victims of the disaster that killed as many as 134 people.

Efforts continued meanwhile to retrieve barrels of a flammable solvent that apparently slid off a truck that washed out the ferry’s doors. Officials denied reports that toxic chemicals from the overturned vessel might contaminate the North Sea.

Prince Charles landed at Zeebrugge Naval Base shortly after 10 a.m. on a Royal Navy helicopter after flying over the stricken ferry, which lies half- submerged about 1,000 yards offshore.

The prince was met by Lucien van den Eiken, the base commander and Olivier Vanneste, the governor of West Flanders province. In the officers mess, he talked briefly with Belgian and British navy divers and air crews, Red Cross workers and officials coordinating the salvaging of the ship in which 81 people were believed entombed when the ferry sank Friday.

He then went by car to the Queen Fabiola Hospital in Blankenberge, a coastal town about 4 miles from Zeebrugge where he spent 35 minutes with seven survivors, all Britons.

″I think the fact that they have had a few days to get over the worst has helped,″ he said of the survivors. ″I don’t think you ever get over losing you relatives under such circumstances.″

Guido Herman, the hospital director, said the survivors ″are all in good shape and some of them could be released today.″

The prince added the stop to a previously planned visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels and lunch with Belgian King Baudouin. His brother, Prince Andrew, came to Zeebrugge on Sunday with his wife, the Duchess of York, and visited hospitalized survivors.

Officials said 25 drums of a solvent called TDI, or toluene diisocyanade, apparently fell off on a tractor-trailer truck that washed out the ferry’s doors. The truck was empty when it was pulled from the water Tuesday.

Hans Walenkamp, chief salvaging officer for Smit Tak, the Dutch company hired to raise the vessel, said Tuesday night his teams had retrieved some of the barrels. He said TDI was flammable but not toxic and he did not know how many barrels were left behind.

As many as 134 people died Friday night when the Herald of Free Enterprise keeled over as it left Zeebrugge harbor for the 85-mile crossing to Dover, England. Fifty-three bodies have been recovered, but 81 are believed trapped inside the stricken ship.

All 41 of the dead identified so far were British. Thirty-three of the bodies were taken back to England on Tuesday.

Seawater rushing through the bow loading doors apparently caused the vessel to capsize, but investigators say they have not found out why the doors were open or what may have caused the boat to dip low enough to let in the sea.

Vanneste said water samples taken regularly in the area had found no hazardous chemicals coming from the wreck.

The government promptly denied radio reports over the weekend that highly toxic dioxin had been aboard the Herald of Free Enterprise.

Of the 176 barrels originally on board containing various waste chemicals including waste cyanide being shipped to England for destruction, at least 106 had been retrieved, said a spokesman for Townsend Thoresen, the ferry’s owner.

They said the other barrels might be in the sea or still packed away in the ferry, but company and government officials said there was no reason to believe any had broken or leaked.

It will take about three weeks of preparation before the salvage crews will be ready to right the ship, Walenkamp told reporters.

Hugh hydraulic cranes must be anchored to the seabed, and cables attached to ″strong points″ carefully placed along the main deck by welders from bow to stern.

Once the boat is righted, water will be pumped out and officials hope most, if not all, of the remaining bodies then will be recovered.

By then, however, deterioration is likely to be so advanced that experts will need to compare medical records and belongings to identify the dead, the officials said.

Eventually, the vessel will be towed back into Zeebrugge’s harbor.

Update hourly