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The ferry accident at Zeebrügge March 6,  1987 – KAMEDO-report 55

The Kamedo-reports are published by the Swedish Disaster Medicine Study Organisation (Kamedo), at the National Board of Health and Welfare. Observers study the medical, psychological, organisational and social aspects of disasters. The results, with a focus on experiences gained, are presented in the reports.

This report is entirely in Swedish. Only summary in English.


On the sixth of March 1987 the English ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise" destinated to Dover, left the harbour of Zeebrügge at 7.08 prise , P.M. It was almost dark. The weather was fine with an air temperature of about 0°C. Outside the harbour, when the ferry changed its course, water rushed in through the opened bow loading doors into the two car decks. The roll movement of the ferry continued and it was after a few minutes lying on its port side on a sand bank filled with water. A dredger, seeing the lights of the ferry disappear, alarmed the port control. The disaster plan was activated. Vessels and helicopters were sent to the spot where the ferry had been seen. At this time there was also a NATO-manoeuvre. In Zeebrügge and Oostende ships belonging to the military forces were ready to take part in the rescue operation. Two military scuba-divers were transported to the ferry by helicopter. One of them, after having broken a window, jumped down into the cafeteria, which were now filled up to two third with water. In the water were nearly 100 people. The diver tried to save as many of them as possible by winching them up with a rope to people waiting outside the window on the starboard side of the ship. In that way more than 30 people could be saved.
Also in other parts of the ferry rescue operations took place. Passengers and crew helped each other to leave the ferry. More than 30 vessels came to assistance and at most nine helicopters took part in the rescue operation. In the port control building a civilian crises centre was arranged under the leadership of the governor of Western Flandern. There was no co-ordination 6etween the military and the civilian operations.
Totally eleven medical rescue teams were sent from hospitals to the harbour and worked at three different stations receiving people from the ferry. All the medical work at these stations took place in the open air.
The patients were then brought to hospitals in the vicinity of Zeebrügge. In Brügge, about 20 kilometers from the coast, S:t Jan's hospital received 47 patients, S:t Lucas 11 patients and S:t Joseph 6 patients. The Fabiola hospital in Blankenberg, 10 kilometers south of Zeebrügge, received 68 cases. Some of them were already dead at the arrival to the hospital. Vrouw ter Linden, Knokke Heisst, 10 kilometers north of Zeebrügge, took care of 28 patients. The military hospital in Oostende received four patients with minor injuries. 12 passengers with non-life threatening injuries came to the small marine base hospital at Zeebrügge All of the latter cases were after treatment sent to other hospitals. Also between the other hospitals was an exchange of patients for different reasons. Passengers without injuries were brought to hotels.
The registration of survivors did not function well. During the first day after the accident the official figures of survivors were 408 but later on the authorities found that there had been double countings. According to the last figures given the number of survivors was 351. During the first two days 53 bodies were brought first to a sport hall and then to a moratorium. But left in the ferry were still many dead passengers. Altogether 188 persons lost there lives in this accident.
This report deals with the rescue operations, the medical work and the problems with identification and information connected with the accident.

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