Remembering the ‘Herald’

Debris including freight vehicles had to be removed from the seabed prior to righting( Debris including freight vehicles had to be removed from the seabed prior to righting(

Services have been held in the UK and Belgium marking the 30th anniversary of the loss of the ferry 'Herald of Free Enterprise' where 193 people lost their lives, a tragedy that led to a harrowing salvage operation.

The disaster has never been forgotten in Kent where many of the crew lived and with around 350 people surviving the capsize, the fateful day is still similarly remembered by the inhabitants of Zeebrugge who provided extraordinary assistance to the local emergency services helping injured and distressed survivors, including family groups who became separated, not knowing the fate of their loved ones.

The bow door of the ferry had been left open on sailing resulting in rapid and uncontrollable capsize from water flooding the car deck, the vessel coming to rest on its side on a sandbank. With many bodies still inside the vessel, the ensuing salvage operation was going to be challenging on both the technical and personal fronts, an operation carried out in the best traditions of cooperation between otherwise fierce competitors in the glare of global media coverage and worth recounting briefly.

Following the rescue phase, salvage work started even before a formal contract was signed. First responders included tugs and other vessels from the local maritime community around Zeebrugge and a consortium of Smit-Tak, URS and TVB (Norma Ltd) were tasked with salvaging the Herald of Free Enterprise under a No Cure-No Pay arrangement. Responsibility for directing operations on site was entrusted to Hans Walenkamp for Smit-Tak, Philippe Jacob for TVB (Norma Ltd) and Christian De Block from URS.

The operation consisted of two phases, righting the vessel to an even keel then refloating and delivery to Zeebrugge. Two barges, Takheave 31 and Takheave 32 were moored close to the ferry’s starboard side and using their pulling power were to apply a parbuckling force via cables secured to 32 cantilever strong points welded to the vessel’s hull. Opposite, the crane pontoons Talkift 4 and Taklift 6 provided a lifting force, the crane pontoon Norma supporting the fragile upperworks.

Unstable ground conditions ruled out conventional anchors for securing the barges so 16 piles were driven into the seabed by the Norma to provide moorings. The teams faced challenges including bad weather resulting in the wreck sinking several metres into the seabed. Large amounts of spoil inside the vessel added to the complexity of calculating the pulling and lifting power required.

Just a month after the tragedy the pull-barges and cranes applied their combined power and slowly but surely the stricken ship was pulled to an almost even keel. Bad weather again intervened but eventually British and Belgian naval divers were able to enter the wreck to recover bodies. The salvage teams were naturally involved in this phase, such harrowing activities being a sad part of the work the global salvage industry has to adapt to and often overlooked.

The two Taklift cranes were repositioned at the bow and stern for the second phase to refloat the vessel using a combination of lifting and dewatering the ship's interior. Extra lifting power was required at the bow and Norma also added its strength to this part of the operation and eventually the ferry was once again afloat and ready to be towed very slowly to a berth in Zeebrugge.

Here the process of removing the vehicles from the car deck continued including dealing with hazardous cargo on freight vehicles and of course continue the process of recovering bodies from within.

The option to repair the Herald of Free Enterprise and return it to service was soon ruled out and it eventually left Zeebrugge under tow for breaker in the Far East. So ended an event that will always have a place in maritime history where the professional salvage industry displayed its astute technical skills along with the humanitarian considerations which are the hallmark of the world of shipping, and an event which will always be remembered.

By Peter Barker

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