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Seaman Assigned to Close Bow Doors Was Dozing, Inquiry Told

April 27, 1987

LONDON (AP) _ The man responsible for closing a British ferry’s forward doors was dozing when tons of water poured through the opening and the vessel capsized off Belgium, killing nearly 200 people, an investigator said Monday.

Government commissioner David Steel also said at the start of an inquiry into the March 6 disaster that operating procedures of the ferry company, Townsend Thoresen, were ″sloppy″ and ″inherently dangerous.″

He cautioned against pinning all blame on seaman Marc Stanley, 27, who was supposed to close the bow doors of the Herald of Free Enterprise. Steel said there was no system for allocating the work and Stanley often found someone else had done his job.

Stanley, who was present at the inquiry Monday, had been doing maintenance work the evening of March 6 and, when finished, interpreted the words ″That will do″ from a senior officer to mean he was off duty, Steel said.

″He went to his cabin and he eventually dozed off,″ the commissioner said in testimony before High Court Judge Sir Barry Sheen on the first day of an inquiry expected to last six weeks.

The 7,951-ton ferry had at least 543 people aboard when it heeled over on its left, or port, side just outside the harbor after setting out in good weather on a regular run from Zeebrugge, Belgium, to Dover.

Salvage crews refloated the vessel Monday and towed it to a mooring at Zeebrugge. Divers found four more bodies inside, raising the confirmed death toll to 182.

Steel said the ″only tenable explanation″ for the sinking was that the ferry sailed with the bow doors wide open, water flooded in, the bow dipped and the ferry spun around, ending up on its side, partially submerged.

If the ship had not settled on a sandbank, ″there would have been no survivors,″ said Steel, who represents Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley.

″One of his (the captain’s) instructions leaves the impression that the master was required to assume all was well,″ Steel said, as Capt. David Lewry and Stanley listened silently.

″These procedures were manifestly and inherently dangerous. They were procedures which the master had no business to operate.″

Six months before the accident, Steel said, Lewry had written a report saying the Herald of Free Enterprise developed ″an inexplicable port list″ when traveling at a customary speed of about 16 knots, which it had reached outside Zeebrugge.

Another captain reported a list in 1981 but neither report was seen by Townsend Thoresen’s senior management, he said.

″The diseases of a sloppy system and sloppy procedures infected not just those on board ship but well into the body corporate of Townsend Car Ferries,″ he said.

The company is part of Townsend Thoresen, the operator of ferries across the English Channel. Its fleet of drive-on, drive-off vessels carries 10 million passengers and 1.5 million vehicles a year.

Townsend Thoresen was bought by Britain’s P and O group, a London-based conglomerate, shortly before the disaster.

Lawyers representing Capt. Lewry, Stanley, survivors and relatives of victims sat around circular tables Monday in an auditorium behind Westminster Abbey owned by the Church of England.

″We must be careful not to allow the weight of this tragedy to fall on the unsupported shoulders of an assistant boatswain (Stanley),″ Steel told the inquiry. ″It cannot be right that the primary defenses of this ship against the sea should be left solely to the responsibility of a petty officer.

″My reservations are centered upon what appears to be a system that had developed on board which did not match the regulations.″

After the accident, a British newspaper reported Stanley was separated from other survivors in a Belgian hospital because he was shouting, ″It’s my fault, it’s my fault. I didn’t lock them (the doors) properly.″

Steel said Stanley went back into the ferry unhesitatingly to help save passengers.

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