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Double tragedy for survivor of Zeebrugge ferry disaster Dave Gudgeon 30 years after escaping stricken boat

Dave Gudgeon with a picture of his late wife, Irene. Both survived the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in 1987. Picture: Dominic Gilbert

Dave Gudgeon with a picture of his late wife, Irene. Both survived the Zeebrugge ferry disaster in 1987. Picture: Dominic Gilbert

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“I thought it would be a nice crossing. I was wrong.”

Zeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. Picture shows the stricken car ferry hauled on to its keel with no apparent damage after an eight-hour winching operation by pulling barges and floating cranes off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge today. Photo from PA/Overseas TelephotoZeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. Picture shows the stricken car ferry hauled on to its keel with no apparent damage after an eight-hour winching operation by pulling barges and floating cranes off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge today. Photo from PA/Overseas Telephoto

Three decades after escaping one of the biggest peace time maritime disasters in British history when the Herald of the Free Enterprise capsized in Zeebrugge harbour, killing almost 200, survivor Dave Gudgeon has been hit by a second tragedy.

His first wife Eileen had perished in the waters which flooded the Townsend Thoresen ferry on March 6, 1987, and the 81-year-old found solace in a fellow survivor, Irene.

And after 27 years of marriage, she died in 2016 after succumbing to dementia.

On the 30th anniversary of the disaster in which 193 people lost their lives, Mr Gudgeon, of Stoke Holy Cross, recalled: “There was talk of heroes that night, but I didn’t see many. My daughter was the only one I saw.”

He had taken the £1 day trip across the North Sea with Eileen, then 49, daughter Josephine, and her husband Rob, then both 26.

They nearly didn’t travel at all.

Zeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. Survivors from the capsized ferry. There was an estimated 590 passengers on board.  Photo from AP WireZeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. Survivors from the capsized ferry. There was an estimated 590 passengers on board. Photo from AP Wire

“I got up early that day because at the time the kids had horses and one of them needed to be shoed,” said Mr Gudgeon. “He had wandered off out to another field, it was freezing cold, pitch dark, and I had to go find this horse.

“When I came back I said, ‘let’s not go today’. It turned out not to be a very good decision.”

Due to celebrate his birthday the next day, Mr Gudgeon’s wife, daughter and son in law had gone to the duty free to buy him a gift when the ship toppled.

A public inquiry later 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.

Zeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. This graphic shows the layout of the Townsend Thoresen car ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise which capsized off Zebrugge last night, claiming many lives. It show the position of the roll-on, roll-off bow doors, through which water poured.  Photo from PA/Overseas TelephotoZeebrugge Disaster: Herald of Free Enterprise capsized. This graphic shows the layout of the Townsend Thoresen car ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise which capsized off Zebrugge last night, claiming many lives. It show the position of the roll-on, roll-off bow doors, through which water poured. Photo from PA/Overseas Telephoto

“It went over in about 30 seconds,” added Mr Gudgeon. “People were falling past us like they were falling off a cliff edge.

“It was like a big wave knocking you off your feet and the water just rushed straight in. How she did it I don’t know, but my daughter had hold of me and my wife by our jumpers, so we went as a threesome.”

In a bizarre moment, the family were refused help by two men who had pulled themselves clear of the water.

“I thought I was just about dead, then we suddenly popped up out of the water,” said Mr Gudgeon. “There were three or four heads in a window beside us, up to their necks in water. They must have been standing on the frame of the window. My daughter managed to climb up onto some seats and was trying to get my wife up with her.

“The water was brutally cold. Although it was killing us we didn’t know it at the time.

“We were trying to get my wife out of the water when we heard two men above us. They were chatting and smoking. It was as if they were waiting for a bar to open. I said, ‘can you help us out here mate?’

“He said: ‘no, sorry, there’s no room up here’. Someone called out to put his cigarette out and he chucked it down in the water beside us.

“I don’t know how long we were there but the heads in the windows had disappeared. The last thing I remember was trying to pull Eileen up with her jumper. Suddenly she went: ‘I can’t hold on any longer’ and she started to drift away. I just grabbed her and held her, and that is the last thing I remember.”

Mr Gudgeon woke up in St Jans Hospital in Bruges. He didn’t know what had become of Irene until the Sunday, when he was led to a large gymnasium housing around 60 coffins “all laid out in rows on the floor.”

Mr Gudgeon and his second wife Irene met through the Herald Families Association - a support group set up for survivors - became good friends and married in August 1989.

She had lost her husband, daughter and three-week-old granddaughter in the disaster.

“As much as anything it was the companionship of being able to talk about a shared experience,” said Mr Gudgeon. “It was quite a cathartic experience. 
“Every so often on the anniversary I feel a bit blue. This year of course Irene wasn’t there which made it even more poignant.”


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