Wexford lorry driver saved up to 50 lives as tragedy unfolded, writes Billy O’Riordan
On the night of March 6th, 1987, assistant boatswain Mark Stanley returned to his cabin after completing his duties on the car deck below. Stanley slept soundly as his ship the ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ left its dock from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge for Dover, England.
Just ninety seconds out from port, a catastrophic event was to occur costing the lives of 193 passengers and crew. Mark Stanley, asleep in his cabin, was solely responsible for closing the bow doors before the ship left port – his negligence would cause horrific suffering for all those on board.
The ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’ was a roll-on/roll-off ferry with a crew of 80, carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, three buses and 47 trucks.
Its route was Dover-Zeebrugge. On that fateful night, shortly after leaving port, it capsized on its port side about a kilometre from shore – luckily for the survivors near a sandbar, a short distance from much deeper waters.
In the wheelhouse, the first indicator of things going wrong was when crew members were thrown across the room.
Captain Lewry cried out, “What’s going on here?” as he was flung across deck sustaining a bad concussion because of the ship’s sudden jolt to the side.
Below deck in the Duty Free shop Simon Osborne described the unfolding scene: “very suddenly there was a jolt and the woman (customer) turned around, kind of stared at me and started screaming…I was standing rooted to the spot and staring, there’s a wall of water coming towards me, and I thought then, you’re gonna die. Ship’s sinking and you’re gonna die.”
Large volumes of water hurled threw the exposed bow door catching customers and crew by surprise. For diners in the lounge, truckers sleeping in their cabs, passengers in cabins and port authorities unaware of the cataclysmic events about to unfold aboard ship – the nightmare was only beginning.
Panic, screaming and shouting echoed through the ship. As the ship lay half-submerged the race for survival was only begun.
Aboard ship, one survivor later gave a harrowing description of the scene below the waterline: “The shouts and the screams and the roaring were something unbelievable.”