Today marks the 30th anniversary of the tragedy at Zeebrugge when the MV Herald of Free Enterprise, a roll-on roll-off ferry owned by Townsend Thoresen, capsized in shallow water as it left the harbour. On board was a crew of 80 and 459 passengers. In all, 193 passengers and crew perished in the incident.
Inevitably, as seems to be the case in every such tragedy, others responded swiftly and with much courage to rescue the survivors and, over the coming days and months, to help treat the injured and traumatised passengers and crew. The selfless gallantry of crew-members, passengers and rescuers was rewarded with two George Medals, ten Queen’s Gallantry Medals, and two Queen’s Commendations for Brave Conduct. Less well known were awards in the Order of the British Empire to those who had assisted in the rescue and in helping the injured and bereaved; these included a number of honorary awards to Belgian citizens.
One of the Royal Navy divers who took part in the rescue was Able Seaman Eamon ‘Ginge’ Fullen. When I was compiling For Exemplary Bravery, he wrote to me about his experience that day; it makes harrowing reading:
‘At the beginning of March we were alongside in Ostend very near to Zeebrugge. Most of the ship’s company had gone home on a long weekend back to England. I was on duty on board on 6th March, the night the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise went down. I was 19 years old and the only clearance diver on board. I had not seen one dead body before that night, by the end of it I was up to triple figures.
I remember getting driven and then flown over the capsized ferry and thinking ‘great, let’s get down there, this is it’. The diving dump was made and a few minutes later a call came that they needed a diver dressed in gear to climb down. Of the divers there was only one other British diver, an officer from my ship, Lieutenant Simon Bound, and from that moment we worked together. He dressed me in the diving set and weights, which is over 60 lbs. I had a dry-bag on and woolly bear (which keeps you warm, as you’re completely dry, or should be). I got positioned over the window, went on air, and proceeded to climb down. It was very awkward climbing over the lip with the heavy set and bad lighting. I then remember cutting quite a big gash in my dry-bag on a jagged piece of metal or glass and swearing profusely. The gash was in the leg and from then on I was wet and cold.
There were a lot of young people, young teenage girls, and I thought what a waste of a life. Something I remembered afterwards and never mentioned it to anyone—on that first stint retrieving the bodies and tying them on to be hoisted, we tied on a young lad of about seven or eight years. The other diver, who was German, said, ‘That’s awful, someone so young!’ and was clearly disturbed. I said a few words and tried to console him. I was swimming and retrieving the bodies but towards the end they were starting to sink. I had one body in my hand ready to tie on. I saw what looked like a small doll dressed in red clothes. I grabbed it and it was a little pretty blond haired girl, two years old or so, dressed in red—a red anorak coat, small red wellies on her feet and a little bobble hat still on her head. I lost my grip of her as the other body was getting hoisted. She floated away slightly and sank. I looked for her for a couple of minutes then forgot her and carried on with the job. I would have liked to have got that pretty little blond girl dressed all smartly in red, out of that cold dark place.
I was getting cold by now and I went for a cup of tea. We came back and helped load the bodies onto a tugboat. Rescuing the three lorry drivers made the whole night worthwhile. Other groups of divers were there now and I was very cold and nearly hypothermic. My suit was full of water and I was shaking with cold. They were going to send divers down the outside with the hope of hearing people maybe still alive. I was keen to dive and, even though I was extremely cold, I would have gone in again, although even then I remember saying I would not be able to do much. That would be the only thing now, with more experience, that I would not consider doing.
We returned to Ostend to find out our ship had sailed. We slept on a Dutch ship for a couple of hours and then returned to Zeebrugge to meet our ship when it came in. I don’t think I was brave or courageous, just somebody there who could do the job and think clearly.’
One of the Belgian divers involved in the rescue was Luitenant-ter-zee Gie Couwenbergh. He wrote:
‘I just happened to be at the right time at the right place. As duty commander of a NATO exercise I was responsible for the harbour of Zeebrugge for the night shift. I received a call telling me that a ferry had capsized just outside the fairway to Zeebrugge. I took it as part of our paper exercise but the caller repeated and added ‘This is a ‘NO PLAY’ message’. I could hardly believe it as there was a very calm sea, good visibility, cold, but no reason for a ferry to capsize. Anyway, I received more messages by phone and understood the scope of this incident. I had a message sent to all participating units and switched our office from ‘game’ to ‘real’ action. My car was outside the building and all my diving gear was still in it. I heard heli’s were underway from Koksijde SAR and I asked them to pick up three divers that I could contact in the Naval Base. Within minutes we were ready to be picked up and a few minutes later we were dropped on the Herald of Free Enterprise’s hull, still outside the water.
With the little light we had I could localize passengers and crew in the water some 15 metres below me, fighting for their lives. I went down a ladder we installed and started getting the people out. A team on the hull lifted them while I was attaching them in the water. This went on for a couple of hours. Weeks later we recovered the bodies from the wreck.’
The gallantry awards were published in the London Gazette of 31 December 1987, ‘In recognition of bravery during the hazardous rescue operations after the capsize of m.v. ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ off Zeebrugge on the night of 6th March 1987.’
Mr Andrew Clifford Parker (Passenger)
Head Waiter Michael Ian Skippen (Crewman—Posthumous)
Queen’s Gallantry Medal
Lieutenant Simon Nicholas Bound, Royal Navy (Rescue diver)
Seaman Leigh Cornelius (Crewman)
Luitenant-Ter-Zee 1ste Klas Guido Armand Couwenbergh, Belgian Navy (Rescue diver)
Luitenant-Ter-Zee 1ste Klas Alfons Maria Augustinus Cornelia Daems, Belgian Navy (Rescue diver)
Able Seaman Eamon Christopher McKinley Fullen, Royal Navy (Rescue diver)
Assistant Purser Stephen Robert Homewood (Crewman)
Mr Piet Lagast (Rescue diver)
Seaman William Sean Walker (Crewman)
Quartermaster Thomas Hume Wilson (Crewman)
Mr Dirk van Mullem (Rescue diver)
Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct
Chief Petty Officer Edward Gene Kerr (Rescue diver)
Chief Petty Officer Peter Frank Still (Rescue diver)
Other awards for meritorious service related to the incident, including awards to Belgian nationals, were made in the aftermath of the disaster, included:
Ordinary Officer of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
Commander John Birkett, Royal Navy
Ordinary Member of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Warrant Officer (Diver) Michael George Fellows DSC, BEM
Ordinary Member of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Honorary Knight Commander of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire (KBE)
Mr Olivier Vanneste, Governor of West Flanders
Honorary Officer of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)
Captain Marc Claus, Director Belgian Pilotage Service
Honorary Member of the Civil Division of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
Mr Rene van Havere, Zeebrugge Harbourmaster
Dr Daniel Dendooven, Cardiologist & Senior Doctor
Dr Geert Fransen, Cardiologist & Head Surgeon
Mrs Nadine de Gendt-Bruylandt, Nursing Director
Sister Agnes van Loo, Nursing Director
Secretary of State for Transport’s Award of Plate
Mr Andre Pape, Master of the Tug Seahorse
Mr Henri Vermeersch, Master of the Tug Burgermeester van Damme
1. (Back) For a comprehensive description of the incident and details about the casualties and many of the survivors, see: Yardley, I. (2014). Ninety Seconds at Zeebrugge: The Herald of Free Enterprise Story. Stroud: The History Press.
2. (Back) Email Fullen to Metcalfe, 2013.
3. (Back) Email Couwenbergh to Metcalfe, 2013.
4. (Back) London Gazette 31 December 1987. Issue 51183, p 61.
5. (Back) London Gazette 31 December 1987. Issue 51171, p 5.
6. (Back) Ibid.
7. (Back) Ibid. p 15.
8. (Back) Ibid.
9. (Back) The tradition of awarding an inscribed silver plate to the master or senior officers of a ship involved in a rescue is long-standing. Other gifts, such as inscribed nautical instrument, gold watches and binoculars, or monetary payments to seamen were also common. Usually, they were presented by the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Transport (now the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Deportment of Transport, respectively).