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The memories live on

PUBLISHED: 10:02 07 March 2007 | UPDATED: 12:33 22 October 2010

Twenty years ago passenger ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over in Zeebrugge harbour, killing nearly 200 people. JON WELCH looks back at a "dark and dreadful night" and a tragedy that could - and should - have been avoided.

Twenty years ago passenger ferry the Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over in Zeebrugge harbour, killing nearly 200 people. JON WELCH looks back at a “dark and dreadful night” and a tragedy that could - and should - have been avoided.

It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in British maritime history, claiming the lives of 193 people.

Yesterday they were honoured at a memorial service to mark the 20th anniversary of the Zeebrugge ferry tragedy.

Survivors of the disaster were joined by families of the victims for the service at the British and International Sailors' Society centre in Dover, followed by another ceremony at Herald Wood, a Zeebrugge memorial area in the town.

The Reverend Sean Carter told the British survivors and relatives, and Belgian army diver representatives who had come to pay their respects: "It still makes no sense to us. We are still shocked as we recall this 20th anniversary.

"It was one of those events which people will always remember where they were at that time. It was a dark and dreadful night for so many people.'

It was on the evening of March 6, 1987, that the Townsend Thoresen ferry Herald of Free Enterprise set out for Dover with 454 passengers and 80 crew on board. As the ferry left Zeebrugge harbour, it rolled over onto its side.

A public inquiry confirmed that the ferry had left the port with its bow doors open, allowing large quantities of water to flood the car deck. The crew member responsible for closing the doors was asleep at the time.

Heroics by crew and passengers led to the majority of those on board surviving, but more than 150 passengers and nearly 40 crew perished.

Townsend Thoresen, which later became P&O European Ferries, was severely criticised in the subsequent public inquiry report.

Lord Justice Sheen, who conducted the inquiry, said Townsend Thoresen had been "infected with the disease of sloppiness” from the top of the company to the bottom.

In October 1987 an inquest jury returned verdicts of unlawful killing. P&O European Ferries was later charged with corporate manslaughter and seven employees were charged with manslaughter, but there were no convictions.

A number of the disaster's heroes received awards, including ex-policeman Andrew Parker, who earned a George Medal. He became known as "the human bridge" when he saved his wife, his 12-year-old daughter and about 20 other passengers who walked over his body to safety.

Head waiter Michael Skippen also received a posthumous George Medal. He died after saving others and calling for calm. Other crew members got the Queen's Gallantry Medal.

Survivors included Barry Ducker, a truck driver from Narborough, near Swaffham. He had been asleep in the cab of his lorry, but managed to escape as the 38-ton vehicle was engulfed in water, using a floating car as a life raft.

The case of the Herald has often been cited during the current attempts by the government to get a Corporate Manslaughter Bill through parliament.

International ferry safety regulations were tightened after the disaster, but there had to be further changes when the ferry Estonia capsized in a severe storm in the north Baltic Sea in September 1994 with the loss of more than 900 lives.

A Norfolk couple who met after surviving the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster have recalled the day the ferry sank, killing their loved ones.

Dave and Irene Gudgeon, of Stoke Holy Cross, near Norwich, married after meeting through a support group for bereaved families.

Mr Gudgeon, 71, lost his wife Eileen, then 49. Mrs Gudgeon lost her husband Norman, 49; her 27-year-old daughter Sharon, and three-week-old granddaughter Rebecca.

Mrs Gudgeon, 67, was one of only three of 53 diners in the ship's restaurant to survive the disaster. She said: “I remember the boat tilted and the sweet trolley went flying and the gateaux were all over the floor.

“The water had come right up to the windows and my daughter said, 'If that glass breaks we will be under water.' Then within seconds it happened.”

A man fell and came sliding across their table - dying in front of them. His wife also crashed on to the floor between the table.

Then Mrs Gudgeon's husband Norman fell down and Irene, who could not swim, could see water rising through the doors. She was then sucked into a whirlpool.

“A chair came past and I hung on to it,” she recalled, wiping tears from her face.

“A man then told me to hold on to him and said we would swim to a wall. I think it was the ceiling of the ship. But then I had to let go of the man as he wasn't speaking and I thought he was dead and was pulling me down.

“I reached the wall and I put my foot in something, I think it was a light socket and I shouted out and a young boy helped me and put me on some tables.”

Irene, a mother-of-four, was one of the first people to be rescued by fishermen who had sailed out to the stricken ferry. She was left with bruises and three cracked ribs but was more worried about the fate of her loved ones.

Of her family on board the ship, only her son-in-law Maurice, then 30, survived. He had been at the other end of the ship, trying to find a cabin for his baby daughter Rebecca, who died.

Mr Gudgeon, vice-chairman of South Norfolk District Council, had gone on the trip with his wife Eileen, their daughter Josephine and her husband Rob, then both 26.

He was sitting in the café one deck below the restaurant waiting for his wife and daughter to come back from the duty free shop.

“I was watching them come back to the table when the ship lurched and water was bubbling at the window,” he recalled. “There was no time to hold onto anything and the water washed all over us.”

Then the lights went out as the water reached the ship's electrical system. Josephine held on to him and Eileen and the three swam together.

“There were bodies washing around and people were shouting and screaming and swearing. I remember there were people dying everywhere and there were these two young blokes who had climbed out and they were above us. They were smoking and I said 'Can you give us a hand?' and they said 'Sorry mate, there's no room up here'. A lot of young men got off that ship very quickly without trying to save people.

“Then Josephine managed to climb out and she was shouting out to us, 'Hang on in there!'” She and Rob survived.

Eileen then screamed that she couldn't hold on any more and let go.

“I don't remember anything else until I woke up in hospital,” said Mr Gudgeon.

At first he did not know what had happened to his wife of 28 years, but discovered her body in a temporary morgue a few days later.

“I found out later that Eileen was the fourth body to come out of the ship. I think initially they had rescued her thinking she was alive but the cold killed her. I feel like I failed her really because I did not get her out,” he said.

Mr and Mrs Gudgeon met through the Herald Families Association, became good friends and married in August 1989. They have lived in Stoke Holy Cross since 1991.

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