Grieving families mark 35 years since the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster

On Sunday 6 March 2022 families of those who perished on the Herald of Free Enterprise 35 years ago will gather to mark the poignant anniversary in a special service run by international maritime welfare charity Sailors’ Society.

The names of all 193 passengers and crew lost shortly after the roll-on roll-off ferry left Zeebrugge in Belgium will be read out during the service in Dover.

Many of those on board had taken advantage of a newspaper promotion offering cheap trips to the continent. All but seven of those who died when the ferry capsized in just 90 seconds were British.

“I still feel the loss of my aunt and uncle as powerfully as I did in 1987,” said Kim Spooner, who was eight at the time and will be reading at the service this year.

“It’s hard to believe it is 35 years since that terrible night when so many lives were lost and changed forever.

“I am so grateful to Sailors’ Society and St Mary’s Church in Dover for continuing to mark the anniversary of this tragedy and for honouring the memory of our loved ones. I do not want the circumstances of this tragedy to ever be forgotten.”

Sailors’ Society chaplains comforted and supported families and survivors affected that night. Every year since, the charity has organised the memorial service and the prayers that follow at the seafront close to the port, where the first families gathered for news 35 years ago.

Last year the pandemic meant families had to join a shortened service via Zoom. But this year families will be able to gather together again.

Sailors’ Society’s CEO Sara Baade said: “We are only too aware how important this time can be for the families, but we are equally aware that for some the journey to Dover may no longer be possible, so we will be broadcasting the service live for anyone who cannot attend in person.

“For 35 years this tragedy has remained in the hearts of everyone affected, including our chaplains who comforted and supported the families and survivors. This memorial service gives us the chance to join with families in remembrance not only of the loved ones lost, but the many heroic acts of crew and passengers that night.”

The 35th Anniversary Service of Remembrance will take place at 2pm on Sunday March 6th at St Mary-the-Virgin Church, Cannon Street, Dover, CT16 1BY. The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin, will be attending.

At 4pm there will be a short Act of Remembrance on the seafront.

For more than 200 years, international maritime charity Sailors’ Society has been transforming the lives of seafarers and their families at home, in port and at sea through the delivery of chaplaincy, education and the relief of poverty and distress.

The roll-on roll-off ferry Herald of Free Enterprise capsized shortly after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew. The eight-deck car and passenger ferry was owned by Townsend Thoresen and designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route.

As was common at the time, it was built with no watertight compartments. The ship left harbour with her bow door open, and the sea immediately flooded the decks; within minutes, she was lying on her side in shallow water.

The official inquiry into the disaster placed blame on the crew’s supervisors and a general culture of poor communication in Townsend Thoresen.

Since the disaster, improvements have been made to the design of RORO vessels, with watertight ramps, indicators showing the position of the bow doors, and banning of undivided decks.

Most of the victims were trapped inside the ship and succumbed to hypothermia because of the extreme cold of the water. The rescue efforts of the Belgian Navy and Royal Navy divers limited the death toll.

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