Herald of Free Enterprise Disaster (video)

What can we learn from the tragedy of the sinking of the passenger ferry, Herald of Free Enterprise, in 1987?  Quite a lot, as it happens.

The Herald of Free Enterprise, owned by ferry company Townsend Thoreson, was a roll-on-roll-off (ro-ro) car and passenger ferry.  It was on a journey from Dover, England to Zeebrugge, Belgium when it capsized.  80 crew, 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 lorries were on board.  The entire event took under 90 seconds. 193 people lost their lives just 1km from shore.


As is usually the way with disasters, several factors combined together to cause the disaster.  The design of the Herald, some actions of the crew, the speed of the vessel and the depth of the water at the time the exact impact occurred all created ‘the perfect storm.

In October 1987 the Coroner returned a verdict of unlawful killing.  7 staff from Townsend Thoreson’s parent company, P&O, were charged with ‘gross negligence manslaughter’ and P&O itself was charged with corporate manslaughter.  However, the company and 5 of the 7 individual defendants were acquitted.  The case was responsible for the UK precedent of Corporate Manslaughter charges.

The Townsend Thoreson brand name was withdrawn by P&O and is now known as P&O Ferries.

Academic papers such as the 1989 paper by Chris O’Meara suggested managers should take the following learning from the tragedy and apply it to all corporate crisis preparations:

  • There should be no corner cutting for safety issues
  • Proper communication channels and protocols are essential
  • There should be a clear command structure

O’Meara’s stark reminder of the need for management to take responsibility for their organisations is thus: “If the organisation is not shipshape then management will find it very difilcult indeed to show that there has been an absence of fault by it in any disaster.

The disaster also spurred the creation of the small UK charity, Disaster Action, which provides support and information to the bereaved and survivors of disasters.  Their very useful resources include the following free leaflets:

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