Zeebrugge Herald of Free Enterprise disaster survivor still grieves

The Herald of Free Enterprise
Image caption More than 190 people lost their lives when the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off Zeebrugge

A survivor of the Herald of Free Enterprise capsizing still mourns the loss of friends on board, 25 years on.

Simon Osborne and seven of his friends were returning from a day trip to Belgium when the ferry capsized.

He was trapped inside the ship and managed to survive the disaster, which claimed the lives of two friends.

The ferry had left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge 30 minutes before, with 545 people on board for the crossing to Dover.

Mr Osborne, then 19, was queuing at the perfume counter when the ship jolted quite violently. Within a few seconds there was another more severe jolt.

"The ship literally tipped over as if you were knocking over a glass of water - it seemed that quick," Mr Osborne recalls.

'Unbelievable terror'

It was just before 19:00 on 6 March, 1987.

The bow doors had been left open when the ship left port, and water started to flood her car decks, making the vessel unstable.

In spite of capsizing in shallow water only 100 yards (91m) from the shore, 193 people lost their lives aboard the Townsend Thoresen ferry that night.

Survivors said it took between 45 seconds and one minute for the ship to turn over and come to rest on a sandbank on its side.

Mr Osborne described the scene onboard as the ship went over.

"It was a scene of unbelievable terror," he said. "There were people, chairs, tables and litter bins the contents of the perfume counter just raining down."

"I found myself rooted to the spot in sheer terror and disbelief at what was happening."

Image caption Simon Osborne was trapped on the Herald of Free Enterprise

Mr Osborne had become trapped in the lounge area of the ship. Quickly realising those around him were dying of hypothermia in the icy-cold water, he knew that if he was going to survive, he needed to get to a part of the ship where he could be rescued.

"I floated up with the water, in the dark, and thought for a few minutes that I was going to drown, that I was going to perish there in the ship," he said.

He made his way to below one of the broken windows, through the debris and bodies floating in the water.

By that time, there were rescue teams with divers onboard, and he was quickly put in a harness and winched onto the side of the ferry.

'Disease of sloppiness'

The coroner's inquest into the capsizing returned verdicts of unlawful killing.

After a public inquiry into the disaster, Lord Justice Sheen published a report, which identified a "disease of sloppiness" and negligence at every level of the Townsend Thoresen hierarchy.

"At the time I was consumed with rage, and I wanted someone to be brought to book for this," Mr Osborne said.

"At the end of the day there was a problem there and the disaster could have been avoided if the procedures had been there."

The Crown Prosecution Service charged the company, which had since become P&O European Ferries, with corporate manslaughter in 1989, but the case collapsed because of insufficient evidence.

More than 30 people were later recognised in the New Year Honours list for their roles in saving the estimated 350 people who were rescued.

The George Medal was awarded to head waiter, Michael Skippen, who died trying to get passengers to safety and to Andrew Parker, who formed a human bridge to allow others to cross to safety.

More on this story

Around the BBC