A day of tragedy as ferry toppled on to its side

The News front page from Saturday March 7, 1987
The News front page from Saturday March 7, 1987

THIS WEEK IN 1976: Big crowds for the big band sound

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These shocking pictures of a cross-Channel ferry lying on its side stunned the nation, but had particular resonance for people in the Portsmouth area.

This was the morning after the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster off the Belgian port of Zeebrugge.

The News despatched a team of reporters and photographers to the scene because Townsend Thoresen also ran ferries to France out of Portsmouth.

The disaster happened at 6.45pm the previous evening when the roll-on, roll-off ferry toppled onto its side on a sandbank off the Belgian coast. It was heading for Dover.

By the time this final edition of that grim Saturday rolled off the press, 140 people were feared dead.

That figure eventually rose to 193 passengers and crew. It was the worst maritime disaster involving a British-registered ship in peacetime since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.

When this edition of The News was published, latest reports estimated there had been 405 survivors and a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter using thermal imaging equipment was still picking up hot spots showing there could be more inside the stricken ship.

One told reporters how he saw a man drag a four-month-old baby to safety by holding it in his teeth.

Another said: ‘One moment everything was normal, then the next thing it just seemed to tip over. There was panic.’

At Portsmouth’s Continental Ferry Port that day, passengers booked on the 9am Townsend Thoresen ferry to Cherbourg were nervous. Adele Cuttler, from Hedge End, near Fareham, said she was scared.

‘I feel pretty sick about the idea of going on this ferry. I wish I could cancel the trip,’ she said.

‘You always think these ferries are so safe, so it’s quite terrifying to imagine what it must have been like. People always think it never happens to them.’

Royal Navy divers from Portsmouth spent the night making repeated attempts to dive into the ferry to reach trapped passengers.

Two teams of divers – including men from the HMS Vernon diving school (now Gunwharf Quays) were airlifted to Zeebrugge by Royal Air Force helicopters from the search and rescue centre at HMS Daedalus, Lee-on-the Solent.

Navy spokesman James Gee told The News: ‘Conditions for divers are pretty bad. The sea is extremely cold and cars and lorries in the hold have broken loose and are floating around.’