The Capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise: Humanity Amid the Seas

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Cheryl McFadden on Sunday, March 7, 2021.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and redeemer. Amen.

I want to share with you a seafaring story that portrays humanity, in all its weakness and its strength. Yesterday, marked the 34th anniversary of the capsize of the Herald of Free Enterprise off the Belgium port of Zeebrugge. Before the Channel Tunnel was built, cross-Channel ferries were used to transport people from Europe to England. In the 1920’s, ferries were built to transport vehicles and freight across the channel. These ships were known as Roll-on, Roll-Off ferries. Some of you may have taken these ferries on your trips. When my father was station in Belgium in the late sixties, early seventies, my family would take trips to England via the RO-RO ferry. My father would drive our Buick onto the ferry and my brother and I, would watch in amazement as cars and trucks would roll on to the ferry at the beginning of the journey and roll off once we reached port. Never once did we imagine that the ferry could capsize. My mother might have imagined it, but not my father, brother or I doubted its safety or the competence of the crew. I begin this story with excepts taken from the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) report, articles, and broadcasts at the time. I will use the full names the passengers onboard but only the first names of the crew members involved.

On Monday, March 6th, 1987, the Roll on and Roll off passenger and freight ferry Herald of Free Enterprise under the command of Captain David sailed from the Number 12 berth in the inner harbor of Zeebrugge at 18.05 GMT. The Herald had a crew of 80 hands all told and was laden with 81 cars, 47 freight vehicles and three other vehicles. Approximately 459 passengers embarked on the voyage to Dover. The passengers ranged from families like the Bennett’s to groups like 19 year-old Simon Osborne and his friends. There were also members of the British service, stationed in Europe and going home for leave. Some of them were traveling with their families like Stan, his wife Cath and their four month old daughter Kerry who was to be christened. There was even a 23 day old infant aboard.

The voyage was expected to be completed without incident in the prevailing good weather. There was a light easterly breeze and very little sea or swell. For sailors of the high seas, the conditions were ideal to transport the passengers and the freight. The Herald passed the outer mole at 18.24 knots when she capsized. She capsized only four minutes into her journey. During the final moments, the Herald turned rapidly io starboard and was prevented from sinking completely by reason only that her port side took the ground in shallow water. The Herald came to rest with her starboard side above the surface. Can you imagine the scene? You can see incredible pictures on the Internet. Water rapidly filled the ship below the surface level with the tragic result that 193 people lost their lives. Many others were injured. Sadly, it was a tragedy that could have been prevented.

The Herald capsized because she went to sea with her inner and outer bow doors open. Yes, you heard me right. The assistant bosun, Mr. Mark acknowledged that it was his duty to close the bow doors at the time of departure from Zeebrugge. After he was released from work by the bosun, Mr. Terry, Mr. Mark went to his cabin and fell asleep. He did not awake to the call “Harbor Stations” which was given over the address system. He remained asleep on his bunk until he was thrown out of it as the Herald began to capsize. In fairness to Mr. Mark, after being jostled from his sleep, he helped with the rescue efforts until he was overcome with cold and an injury.

Mr. Terry who was working in the vicinity of the bow doors saw that there was no one there to close them. Instead of closing the doors, he simply put the chain across after the last car was loaded and left the area. When asked why he didn’t close the doors, he replied, “It has never been part of my duties to close the door or to make sure anybody is there to close the doors.” Not my job! Obviously, Mr. Terry took a narrow view of his duties. To his credit, his behavior after the ship capsized was “exemplary.” In the absence of a deck officer, Mr. Terry took responsibility for organizing the rescue efforts from the bridge and passenger spaces.

Thus far, we have learned from the MAIB report and other sources, the how and why the Herald of the Free Enterprise capsized on the afternoon of March 6, 1987, thirty-four years ago causing the tragic deaths of 193 people (children, women, and men) and injuring more. Before I share with you the action of one of the heroes of the seafaring story, it is important that we name the behaviors and the inactions that led to this tragedy. The MAIB report states that Mr. Mark was negligent in his duties and by doing so, he neglected to take proper care of the people on board. Mr. Mark acknowledged his responsibility and apologized for his inaction. How would you describe the behavior of his supervisor, Mr. Terry? Mr. Terry saw that the inner and outer bow doors were not closed as he put the chain in position but chose to ignore, to walk away, because it was not his duty. His job description did not include closing the bow doors. What word comes to mind to describe his behavior, his inaction? I have thought long and hard about it and the word that comes to mind is “disinterest.” I realize that “disinterest” is not a word used in the legal profession like “negligence.” It’s not a fancy word, but I believe it accurately describes Mr. Terry’s state of being at the time. Mr. Terry was disinterested in performing a duty that was not in his “purview.” In the capsize of the Herald, we have a case of neglect and disinterest of two individuals. We see humanity with its weakness, its flawed nature. My dear friends, I know this is difficult to understand, to accept. But the behavior and inactions of these men are not different from ones we read about in Scripture or see sometimes in everyday life. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37)? Both the priest and the Levite (Jewish men of faith) passed by a man who was stripped of his clothes, beaten, and laid half dead on the road. Who came to his rescue? Who had pity on him? It was a Samaritan who bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. It was a Samaritan (someone who was viewed with suspension and hospitality among the Jews) who put the half dead man on his donkey and brought him to an inn and took care of him. It was a Samaritan who paid the innkeeper to care for him after his departure. The people who we think should care for others either because of their profession, their faith, neglect to care for others. The assistant bosun and his supervisor, crew members responsible for the care of others on the Herald, neglected their responsibility and walked away. The priest and the Levite, men of faith, neglected their responsibility and walked away. In both cases, there was neglect and disinterest.

But as I mentioned at the onset of this sermon, there is grace, hope, and redemption in this seafaring story. We have heroes in this story. Fourteen gallantry awards were given to crew members, rescuers, and one passenger, Andrew Parker.

Andrew Parker was truly a Good Samaritan on the seas. What Andrew did was beyond extraordinary. It was beyond imagination. He risked his life to save others. According to an article (Great Disasters, www.greatdisasters.co.uk), Andrew, a six foot four inches tall bank worker from South London, turned himself into a human bridge to allow more than twenty people to cross a vertical shaft that had once been a corridor, bracing his hands and feet on two metal bars. His wife Eleanor was the first to cross over him. She recalls, “Andrew has a very large frame and he started shouting at me to step on his back and jump to the other side. I was worried that we would go down together, and both die. He wouldn’t let me say no. I felt as though I had to do it because there were so many people waiting. If it failed the rest would be left behind for good.” It was almost twenty-four hours before Andrew and his wife were reunited having been separated because of Andrew’s care for others.

In becoming a human bridge, Andrew made a choice to place the safety of others before his own life. What Andrew did might appear foolish to others. At a basic level, it defies the value self-preservation. Andrew put others before himself. Andrew willingly sacrificed his life for the life of others. Isn’t that what the cross is all about? The cross represents Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. Paul says in Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Corinthians 1:18-25). The cross reminds us to be a human bridge to others. We may not have the fortitude or the calling to do heroic efforts, but we are called to be a human bridge, a lifeline to people in need. What does this look like to most of us? It means offering kindness and compassion by serving one another in our community and the world. It means reaching out and toward others to help them across that barrier between living and languishing. I want to leave you with a story of one of our parishioners who became a human bridge, a lifeline to someone in need.

About a year ago, the parishioner had taken the train into the City and had gotten off a few blocks early to walk the remaining way to her meeting. As she was walking quickly to her meeting, a person who might have been homeless collapsed in front of her. As she glanced around, she saw people turning their heads from the scene, and walling away. She continued walking past the man for about ten steps when something tugged at her heart. She turned around and went to him and saw that he needed medical attention. Fortunately, on the same block was a hospital. She ran quickly to the hospital and got medical care for him. She then continued on to her meeting. When she shared this story with me, she felt as if she had not done enough. She felt that she should have done more. My response to her was very simple. You showed compassion to this man and you got him the help he needed. You became Christ to him. Friends, her actions demonstrated love and compassion, not neglect and disinterest. She became a human bridge for this man.

As we continue on our Lenten journey, as we approach Good Friday, let us remember that the cross is lifeline to God and that we are all called to be human bridge, to be Christ to others. Amen.