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Britain Announces Public Inquiry into Ferry Disaster

March 9, 1987 GMT

LONDON (AP) _ Britain today announced that an admiralty judge will head a public inquiry into the ferry disaster off the Belgian coast and pledged $1.6 million to a fund for bereaved families and survivors.

Transport Secretary John Moore, describing the planned investigation to the House of Commons, also thanked the Belgian people for ″extraordinary courage, efficiency and care.″ He praised British rescue workers who helped save hundreds of lives after the ferry capsized.

Fifty-three bodies have been recovered since the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized Friday night just off Zeebrugge, Belgium. Eighty-one people are missing and believed dead.

Belgium also is conducting an inquiry into the disaster and has begun questioning witnesses and surviving passengers and crew.

Moore said the British investigation would be headed by Admiralty Judge Sir Barry Sheen.

″It will be for the formal investgation to investigate the causes of this disaster and make recommendations to ensure that all possible lessons are learned,″ he said.

Moore said preliminary reports suggest the cause ″was an inrush of water through the bow loading doors,″ but that there was no evidence to suggest a fundamental fault in the ferry’s design.

Mounting evidence indicated the huge loading doors were not closed properly, and the shipowners say the crewman responsible for shutting them is ″blaming himself.″

But lawyers for the crewman in question said today he was not responsible for operation of the doors.

Paul Ovington, spokesman for shipowners Townsend Thoresen, said Sunday the British company has ″accepted that it (the cause of the accident) is something to do with the doors.″

″That is how the water rushed in because there is no other hole in the ship,″ he said. But he added: ″Even if the doors were open, it is for the public inquiry to decide whether that was the only factor.″

The weekly News of The World said an assistant boatswain in charge of the ship’s huge vehicle-loading doors was sedated and separated from other injured victims at a Belgian hospital after shouting, ″It’s my fault, it’s my fault. I didn’t lock them properly.″

Townsend Thoresen spokesman Paul Ellis confirmed that Marc Stanley, 28, was ″in a state of emotional shock″ and ″blaming himself.″

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The crewman, who was questioned by two lawyers before leaving St. Jan Hospital near Bruges, returned to Britain on Sunday night.

Three truck drivers who had been aboard the ferry, bound for Dover in England, said it left port 10 to 15 minutes late because the crew was having trouble closing the doors.

″They were even trying to close them with sledgehammers,″ said one driver, Ian Calderwood.

″The boat started taking in water as soon as she took off. The hold was flooding ... . I’m certain this disaster happened because she took in too much water,″ he said.

″As the captain made a right-hand turn to avoid the sand bank outside the harbor, all the water shifted to one side and turned the boat over,″ Calderwood said. ″There was no noise, no bang. We didn’t hit anything.″

Fellow survivor Brian Gibbons, 39, said, ″They put out three emergency calls for the ship’s carpenter. Then all of a sudden, the boat turned over.″

Ovington said today in a British Broadcasting Corp. television interview that it ″can be regular practice″ to have doors temporarily open when a ferry leaves the quay, in order to allow exhaust fumes to escape.

″As the ship pulls out and turns round in the harbor the doors may be opened at some time to allow for ventilation of the decks,″ he said.

But Robin Kember, boatswain of the Herald’s sister ship, the Spirit of Free Enterprise, said, ″I have never recorded a time when we have ventured to sea with bow doors open ... . They are closed hydraulically in the berth. If ever the hydraulics leak, everything stops until it’s repaired. You don’t touch the doors at sea.″

Anthony Preston, naval editor of the authoritative Jane’s Defense Weekly, said it was an ″accident that should not have happened.″

He said water-tight stabilizing compartments should be added to the sides of the ferries to enable them to remain upright for at least 30 minutes in case of flooding, giving passengers time to escape.

Survivors say the Herald of Free Enterprise keeled over in about a minute. Stabilizing compartments would cost millions of dollars.

Paul Ellis, a Townsend Thoresen spokesman, said the company has ordered its captains to personally supervise the closing of doors before leaving port.

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