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Pain of Zeebrugge ferry tragedy lingers with Costa Concordia

London notebook Memories of the Zeebrugge disaster that claimed nearly 200 lives were revived not just by its 25th anniversary yesterday but also by the recent capsize of a cruise ship off Italy

The car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized soon after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on March 6, 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew.
The car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized soon after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on March 6, 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew.

A colleague jabbed his finger at a picture of the Costa Concordia cruise ship, surrounded by tugs as it lay helplessly on its side off the Italian coast. "It's Zeebrugge 25 years on," he observed quietly.

While the death tolls were sharply different, there were similarities between the two scenes a quarter of a century apart. Even the salvage vessels clustered around the Concordia were from the Dutch company Smit - the same company that responded to the car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized shortly after setting sail from Zeebrugge, Belgium, for Dover, England, on March 6, 1987.

On that fateful day, Marc Stanley, an assistant boatswain, had fallen asleep and, consequently, failed to close the ferry's massive, bow loading doors through which the cars and lorries had boarded the vessel.

Nobody had noticed and, as the ferry set sail, the water poured on to the car deck, eventually causing the ship to topple on its side, killing 193 passengers and crew, all but five of them British. It is the deadliest maritime disaster involving a British ship in peacetime since 1919.

It was a tragedy that was to have a profound effect on the design of car ferries worldwide and on British jurisprudence by establishing the legitimacy of corporate manslaughter charges in the legal system for the first time (even if, in the end, the case against the ferry company executives was dismissed).

Yet for those of us who spent weeks in Belgium covering the disaster at the time, the memories that linger 25 years on are of the individual human tragedies, not the big questions that would come later.

The heart-break of the young mother, for instance, whose infant son's body was never found. The parents of a young man in a wheelchair who could do nothing to save him as the ferry fell on its side. The bravery of the Belgian sailors who saved 346 passengers in the first few hours but were eventually forced back by a rising tide of bitterly cold water.

Most of the victims, in fact, died as a result of hypothermia, rather than drowning, an inquest was later to establish.

One Belgian diver told me of the three faces he had seen pressed against a glass wall in an air pocket in the submerged duty-free shopping area. The people were alive and clawing desperately at the glass but, by the time he had returned with breathing equipment for those trapped, all were dead.

Then there were the UK navy divers brought in to retrieve bodies once the ship had been righted. They were a tough, hardened bunch but one evening I comforted one in tears as he recounted finding the body of a young girl still clutching her teddy bear in the ferry's mud-filled interior earlier that day.

These were the people who were remembered at church services in Dover yesterday and in Zeebrugge on Sunday.

Last night mourners cast flowers on the sea to remember those who had died 25 years ago. They did much the same at the site of the Concordia sinking, in which 32 people died on went missing, a few weeks ago.

And they will do the same next month when they remember all those who died in the most famous seagoing tragedy of them all: the sinking of the Titanic 100 years ago.

Many things in life may change but the sea's ability to take lives - often abetted by human failings - has remained constant for thousands of years.