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When disaster strikes

03 March 2017

Thirty years on from the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, Pat Ashworth looks at the maritime chaplains’ responses, and their continuing work today


Calamity at sea: a dredger the capsized Herald of Free Enterprise

Calamity at sea: a dredger the capsized Herald of Free Enterprise

IT IS 30 years since the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized outside the port of Zeebrugge with the loss of 193 lives. The ferry, carrying 459 passengers and 80 crew members, was sailing to Dover on the evening of Friday 7 March 1987, in calm conditions and shallow water, and was only a hundred yards from the shore when the tragedy happened.

The ship had left port with the bow doors open, and still carrying the extra ballast that had been pumped into the tanks to lower the level of the ferry for loading at this particular port. Water flowed on to the car decks at a rate of 200 tons per minute, and, within 90 seconds, the ship had overturned. Many of the passengers were in cabins below deck, and were plunged into dark­ness as soon as the water reached the ship’s electrical systems. Heroic attempts were made to haul them out, but most died from hypo­thermia.


WHEN the news of the ferry dis­aster broke, the response of the churches was swift and inter­national. The Church Times (13 March 1987) reported that chaplains had stayed aboard the Herald’s sister ships to be with crew members who were described as in a state of shock after so many of their colleagues had been lost. Many of the crew lived locally, and 42 had been reported dead or missing.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Richard Third, sailed by ferry to Zeebrugge on the Sunday night to meet Northern European clergy and take part in an ecumenical memorial service. “Here were relatives waiting for news, and they were remarkably calm — amazingly calm,” he told the paper. “It says a great deal about the English character. We sat and we waited. Once people received information, we began the process of visiting; being a presence; listen­ing — one just stands at the foot of the Cross.”

Church representatives visited survivors in hospital, including Canon John Taylor from Rotter­dam, who worked with the Mission to Seafarers (then called the Mis­sions to Seamen) and the Inter­continental Church Society. He was reported as sitting with the “terribly distressed” captain and assistant boatswain of the stricken ferry. The Revd Tony Rimmer, of the Mission to Seafarers, had one of the saddest tasks of all: he was present in the mortuary with relatives who had come to identify the dead, “helping people in their search, and comfort­ing them whether they had found their loved ones or not”.


THE Revd Bill McCrea, chaplain to the Merchant Navy and National Sea Training College at Gravesend, was also on duty that evening. When the first news of a British ferry disaster came through, he was with a group of young trainees, including several crew members of the Herald who were studying at the college, and remembers their anxiety when they realised it was their ship. The huge loss of life was not known until later in the evening.

He spent two weeks at the Sea­­farers Centre, Dover, providing emotional and practical support. “It was an incredible shock to the system, and I was very anxious,” he says. “I have dealt with the individ­ual loss of life with seafarers’ families over the years, but it was the enormity of the situation. So many people lost their lives that night. I wanted to do the right things, but you can’t go about it in a gung-ho way.”

One trainee, on his first posting, was well known to Mr McCrea: he had taken him to hospital for stitches some weeks previously, following a minor accident at the mission. The boy was 17, and Mr McCrea conducted his funeral, comforting the family as he, too, struggled to come to terms with the shock and loss. “As much as I ministered to his family, they ministered to me, too,” he says.


THE process of recovering bodies took time: Mr McCrea remembers how “One woman, whose husband I buried, had to wait six weeks before they found his body. I gave her all the support I could during that time. Who can train you for that? Not even theological training. You depend upon the grace of God. The families were a great support to me. I was there to care for them, but they reciprocated that, and, as a re­­sult, I got to know them really well.”

Passengers who had survived the sinking were also in shock and distress. On one of his hospital visits, Mr McCrea met a woman whose husband had died, and who owed her own life to a truck driver who had kept her from sinking into unconsciousness by pinching her: one of the heroic acts that came to light during the days and weeks after the disaster.

He took four of the victims’ funerals, all attended by crew who had survived. He reflects: “It was part of their shared grief. No one wants to be involved in this sort of tragedy, and it was a big strain on me at the time. But supporting those I did is a great honour.” At the re­­quest of the families, he led a memorial service at St Mary’s, Dover, on the first anniversary of the disaster — a tradition that the Sailors’ Society has repeated every year since.


AN INTERNATIONAL Christian charity working in 91 ports, the Sailors’ Society has 100 active chap­lains providing practical and spirit­ual help to seafarers and their families. These build up relation­ships with crews and families over many years, but there is also an inter­nation­al team of more than 50 “quick responders”, who work with families in crises, and to assist in the reintegration of sea­farers.

“When somebody has been through a severe trauma, they are a slightly different person from the one who left home,” Sandra Welch, the deputy CEO and programme director at Sailors’ Society, suggests. She refers to a case of piracy in the Gulf of Aden, where a crew of three were held by Somali pirates for five years, to the ongoing distress of their families.

Maritime chaplains talk with respect of the courage and resilience of seafarers, in acknowledgement that the ocean is reckoned to be the most dangerous workplace on the planet. Sister Marian Davey, a port chaplain working with the Roman Catholic charity the Apostleship of the Sea, was called by the harbour master at Felixstowe last month to support the Filipino crew who had lost a colleague after an explosion on board.

“The faith and dignity of the crew was inspirational,” she told BBC Radio Suffolk. “I provided moments where they could openly express their grief and shock through tears and words and prayers and silence.” A mass was celebrated on board, followed by a blessing of parts of the ship and a further ceremony in Ham­­­burg, at the spot where the seafarer had died.


THE Mission to Seafarers is another organisation doing extraordinary work. It is one of the largest port-based welfare operators in the world, providing a round-the-clock service in 200 ports in 50 countries. Figures for 2015 show the scale of the operation: the Mission met 550,000 seafarers on board ship; transported 327,000 seafarers from ship to shore locations; and worked on 2400 justice, welfare, and medical cases. Morning prayers for seafarers and their families are said daily at the charity’s home church of St Michael Paternoster Royal, in London, and a global prayer-diary for named individuals and places is issued every year.

It is the global nature of the work that marks it out. The work of the seafaring charities naturally comes into prominence at the time of a major disaster, and cruise ships and passenger ferries attract public attention because we are familiar with these. Tragedies near the UK mainland will always hit the head­lines. But 90 per cent of the world’s trade is carried by commercial ship­ping, and chaplains can be found working in some of the remotest industrial ports in the world.

Like the Revd Ian McGilvray, who leads the Mission to Seafarers in Port Dampier, Western Australia. In a single week last year, six sea­farers were killed at the port. One officer drowned when he fell into the water while taking draft readings before sailing. Another seaman died on board a supply vessel. Three fishermen died when their trawler capsized. A crane driver in the port suffered a stroke.

“I was involved with liaising with shipping companies, holding prayers and offering our support to those caught up in these tragedies. We also held memorial services on ships,” Mr McGilvray said. “We can offer help to these bereaved families only thanks to the deep generosity of our supporters all over he world.”


AT THE act of remembrance at this year’s service at Dover, Mrs Welch, of the Sailors’ Society, will be read­ing out some of the names of the dead. “It’s one of those very moving moments: remembering a husband, a son, someone who has been very special to someone. It is a very emotional part of the service,” she says.

The former Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, will be giving the address at the service of remembrance on 5 March, and those attending will be invited to cast flowers on the water at the Prince of Wales Pier after the ser­vice. Thirty years on, those who died continue to be remembered, and their families continue to be supported.

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