An Open Door that Capsized a Ferry

The Herald of Free Enterprise ferry.

On the 6th of March of 1987, the MS Herald of Free Enterprise, a passenger and car ferry between Belgium and England, capsized. The accident resulted in the highest number of deaths occurred in a British ship outside of a war in almost 100 years. And it was simply caused because an employee forgot to close the door that allows cars to board the ferry.

According to Ship-disasters, Mark Stanley had the job of closing the bow doors, which are large enough for cars to pass. However, at the time that the ferry was leaving from the port, he was asleep in his cabin and didn’t hear any sounds of the ship departure. In addition to that, the ferry’s Chief Officer
Leslie Sabel saw a man that resembled Mark Stanley making his rounds and erroneously assumed that the bow doors had been closed. Thus, the Chief Officer reported that everything was set to sail, and the captain, who had to rely on the report of the Chief Officer, also assumed that everything was fine. The captain could not see the bow door from his position, and there were no devices to alert him about its open or closed status.

To make things even worse, the ferry had lowered its loading ramp 3 feet lower than usual, since the design of the ferry was incompatible with the link-span in the port. As a consequence, the ferry departed with its bow door open, and also 3 feet deeper into the water than what was usual. Water started to invade the ferry at a rate of 200 tons per minute. By the time that the vessel operators realized what was occurring, an enormous quantity of water had already been poured into it, and shortly after it capsized very fast.

At the time that the ferry capsized, there were 459 passengers, 80 crew members, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 lorries on board. A rescue team was sent to save people, but it took about 30 minutes to arrive there. As a result, 193 people died, mostly from a result of hypothermia from the extremely cold waters.

After an investigation, the fact that the ferry departed with its bow door open was attributed to negligence on the part of several crew members and also the owners of the ferry, as well as to its design.

Now, we can surely see that this tragic accident could have been easily avoided if safety measures had been better implemented on the operations of the ship, such as:

  • There should be a device that warns the captain of the ship whether the bow doors are open or closed, such as a simple status light. Or maybe even a TV monitor connected to a camera that shows clearly the bow door, so the captain would know if it’s closed or not;
  • Even better would be if the ferry was designed to not even function while its bow doors are open. That way, even if all crew members assumed wrongly that the doors were closed and the captain attempted to depart, the ship would not function while the doors are open;
  • Employees need to be better trained. It’s clear that the employees of the ferry were negligent, since the responsible for closing the doors was sleeping at the moment of departure. Moreover, the Chief Officer wrongly assumed that the doors were closed and also wrongly assumed that the man that he saw was the responsible for it. Supervisors need to know very well their employees to be able to recognize them, and should not assume anything until they have concrete proof.