MS Herald of Free Enterprize was a roll-on roll-off car and passenger ferry owned by Townsend Thoresen, thought to carry more than 600 people at a time. On the night of 6 March 1987, just after it left the Belgian port of Zeebrugge (and shortly after Blankety Blank had finished on TV), it capsized, killing a total of 193 passengers and crew. This was the stuff of newsflashes.
The ship had been on her way to the British port of Dover, and once more information began to filter through to the TV news rooms, we learnt that most of those who'd died in the disaster had done so as a result of hypothermia in the icy-cold waters.
Later, it emerged that the capsizing had happened because someone had left the loading doors open as the ship set off on its journey. As a consequence, water quickly flooded into the car deck, tilting the ship dramatically and with such speed - in fact, it took just 90 seconds for the disaster to take place. It meant the crew were caught by surprise and little could be done to avert disaster at that point in time.
A court case took place after, and it emerged a number of people were to blame for not closing the boat doors. In fact, the person whose duty this usually fell to was at that time asleep in his cabin. Seven of the crew were charged with gross negligence manslaughter and P&O Ferries (the operator) charged with corporate manslaughter… until the case fell apart.
Following the Zeebrugge disaster, a number of modifications to the design and procedures for roll-on, roll-off ferries were introduced to prevent a similar incident ever happening again.