ZEEBRUGGE FERRY DISASTER
Friday 6th March 1987
By Brian Hodgkinson
It was Friday 6th March 1987, I will never forget the date due to two major things happening in my life. Firstly my daughter Jane, became a teenager and secondly, what I am about to write about, the Zeebrugge Ferry Disaster.
Like most Fridays in those days, while serving in the Branch, everyone world-wide would gather at the bar, where by the end of the evening jobs would have been discussed, and the world put to rights. 12 Det SIB RMP in Werl, West Germany, where I was serving as a Staff Sergeant was no exception.
I remember arriving home just before midnight, feeling very pleased with myself, mind you there had been plenty of drink taken (I have always thought that that was a very quaint Irish saying). Having just arrived home, I was walking down the corridor in my flat trying not to wake my wife, when the phone rang. That’s all I needed! Picking up the phone and wondering who it might be because I was not on duty, the voice at the other end was the Governor. The conversation went something like this. “ H, are you sober?” “I can be” came the reply “Why, what’s up?”. “A ferry’s gone down at Zeebrugge and you may be needed. Wait for my call”.
I have never been one to drink black coffee, but on this occasion I must have consumed about a gallon of the stuff. The call that I would be needed came about 2 hours later and I jumped in the car, picked up Sergeant Tom Palmer, on the way to the office where we loaded the car with cameras, film, SOCO Kits, and what body bags we could find and anything thing else we thought we might need. We then made our way to Zeebrugge some 200 miles away. Only having Deutsche Marks with us we stopped for coffee at a Rastplatze just before the Belgian Border. Having had our much-needed refreshment we were walking back to the car when I realised that not only could I not find the car keys, but also worse still I had left them in the ignition. I was just about to make a forced entry into the car, when Tom found that we had not locked the tailgate on the car. It was quite amusing seeing Tom crawling in the back and opening the driver’s door. We arrived at Zeebrugge just after 0830 hrs that morning where Captain Frank Lindop met us, he had been working with other members of the Branch at the make shift mortuary in the Belgian Naval Base across the water from the ferry terminal. (It just happened that all week members of the Branch had been taking part in an exercise which incidentally I was due to take part in that weekend). Frank briefed us and we were told that one of the Townsend Thoresen Ferries had sunk just outside Zeebrugge harbour and that there could be considerable loss of life. Tom was detailed off to the Navy dockyard where the bodies were being brought ashore and I was asked to set up an Op’s Room, with the help of Staff Sergeant Terry Boroughs, until further help arrived.
You can imagine that the Ferry terminal was in utter chaos, with people running around like headless chickens. I went to the main Townsend Thoresen office building where I introduced myself and informed them that I would like an office with a telephone and a ship’s manifest, both of which they seemed very reluctant to provide. We were eventually allocated an office on the first floor of the building. There was no telephone but we were given a manifest. Terry and myself then set about the task of trying to establish how many people were missing. In those days the ship’s manifest could only be described as a joke! You had things like ‘Jones + 2’, ‘Smith + 5’ and no further details. I therefore went to the office and asked the question. Does Jones + 2 mean there were 2 or 3 Jones’s on board the ferry, and not one person could tell me. Terry and I therefore decided that if it said ‘Jones + 2’ then there would have been 3 Jones’s. Then came the mammoth task of finding out how many people were on the ferry, how many survivors there were and, more importantly, how many were missing. In order to carry out this task the local RMP unit at Antwerp supplied vehicles and men to drive around all the hospitals and First Aid centres where survivors were being taken for treatment, getting their names and reporting back to our office with this vital information. Some twelve hours later Terry and I estimated that there were about 180 people missing, only to be told by Townsend Thoresen staff that this figure was totally exaggerated. How wrong they were.
Now more people had been drafted in from SIB Detachments spread across Germany, police officers from Kent, and members of the RAF Provost & Security Services, lending a hand. Terry and I left the Op’s Room in their capable hands and tried to find the only hotel in the area at the seaside town of Blankenberg. I remember being shown to my room and you could see the indentation in the sheets where the previous occupant had lain. In fact the bed was still warm. I was so tired that I just laid down on the bed and went to sleep. I was woken the next morning and following breakfast, Frank Lindop, brought us up to speed with the events of the previous evening (I am sure Frank had been awake all night). I returned to the Op’s Room, but it was obvious that everything there was under control with far better people equipped to do the job than I was. It was therefore decided that I would move to a second makeshift mortuary which had been set up not far from the Navel Base, in a local Sports Hall, which was to be used to record all formal evidence of identification by relatives and friends.
On arrival at the sports hall, I was introduced to the two Kent police officers with whom I would be working, one I can only remember as ‘Tony’. Senior members of the Belgian Red Cross also met us. Having worked with them for over a week I can only sing their praises. Although volunteers, they were very professional, compassionate and extremely well organised.
Even today some 15 years to the day later, it is still hard to describe my first reaction on entering the sports hall. We were confronted by 64 coffins, which had been lined up in rows of male, female and children. At this point, as all policemen will understand, they are just bodies and although not a nice experience, simply part of the course of business.
Organised and armed with statement forms we waited for the first wave of relatives to walk through the hall trying to identify their missing loved ones. Tony and I decided to take the necessary statements and record the necessary antecedents of all those identified, which included putting ID labels on the coffins. It is still daunting to recall each group of relatives being taken through the sports hall by the Red Cross, and walking up and down the rows of coffins, some of them knowing that even after this ordeal they may not be able to identify the person they were looking for. The first two hours went well from a police point of view, we had made about ten positive identifications and both Tony and I, who at the time had clocked up a total of some 40 years Police service between us, were going about our task and not allowing our feelings to come out.
At this point a brother and sister both serving police officers, identified the body of their elder brother who had shortly before retired from the police force after 35 years service. We saw the strain on their faces and the way they accepted the job we had to do. They went through the formal statement-taking and after a final look at their deceased brother, they left the hall. I looked at Tony and he looked at me, and I think we were both surprised to see tears running down our cheeks. At this point the ice was broken and a bond sealed between us. From then on we did not try to hide our feelings and occasionally would take a walk alone outside the building, or offer each other an encouraging word.
As I recall the first day was the worst because we went through some particularly traumatic identifications or was it that after this we just got used to it, if one ever can. One such identification was that of a four-year old girl called Emma, whose mother had to be forcibly removed from the hall screaming. About 1800 hrs that first day we locked up the sports hall and bade farewell to our charges and were taken to a new hotel in Blankenberg which was owned by Townsend Thoresen. I was shown to my room, which I was to share with Mike Ferrier, an old friend of mine who was at Dortmund Det SIB. It was whilst in the hotel that I realised that the only clothes I had to wear were the ones I was wearing, and after two days things were getting a bit ripe. Still, following a shower and washing my under clothes, we went down for our first evening meal, in fact it was the first meal since breakfast. Townsend Thoresen had agreed to pay for all accommodation and meals for everyone staying at the hotel, but refused to pay for any alcoholic drinks. Because it was my idea, it was up to me to chat up the head barman at the hotel and he agreed that any drinks would be put down as ‘Soup’. To this day I have often wondered how we got away with it.
That first night in the hotel was quite a sombre occasion with each of us contained with our own thoughts. The next day, the 9th March 1987, was my birthday and prior to leaving the hotel I was offered a change of job, but I decided to stay at the sports hall until the last of the bodies was identified. I had to do my best for their sake. On our return to the hotel that evening we discovered that it was also the birthday of one of the Kent policemen, so it was decided to celebrate after our evening meal. Still not having a change of clothing Mike Ferrier and I decided to change shirts, they still smelled a bit, but it was a different smell. On occasions like this I suppose one has to talk about the Stress Factor. Well in those days I don’t think stress was in the Military vocabulary, you had a job to do so you got on with it. How things have changed, but more about that later. Being so close to England you could get UK TV in the hotel rooms, so whilst getting showered and dressed one would listen to the news. I could not understand it then, and I have never been able since to understand how reporters can be so insensitive when interviewing a survivor or relative who had lost a partner or friend. The way they would thrust a microphone in the face and say “ How do you feel “. How did they think they felt ‘Fucking upset’? I can also remember seeing an interview with a young girl, who was about 15 years of age and a survivor. The reporter asked her to describe what happened and she told this story about how she had been to France with her grandmother for a day trip, courtesy of the Sun Newspaper. Following the disaster and after the ferry had turned turtle she and her grandmother were walking from their cabin along the corridor which was rapidly filling up with sea water (which in fact was the ceiling), when a women came rushing past them in a wheelchair. The girl continued that seeing this, her grandmother grabbed hold of the wheelchair in an effort to stop it, when she was taken by the current of water and never seen again. This in itself was very tragic and traumatic for the young girl. However, I mentioned earlier the tremendous amount of stress we as a team were under, with no counselling whatsoever. Well, the night of our birthdays you can imagine an awful lot of ‘Soup’ was drank that night, and one of the guys mentioned the story told by the young girl, and said that if anyone was recovered holding a wheelchair, then at least we would be able to identify that person; which we all found very funny indeed.
Unknown to us at the time, not only were we staying at the hotel, but Townsend Thoresen had also put up relatives in the same hotel. This was soon changed and only we stayed in the hotel, so we could let our hair down and unwind following each days tasking.
The days passed and by the Wednesday evening all but four of the coffins had identification labels attached and arrangements were well under way to have those identified repatriated to the United Kingdom or, in the case of some of the service personnel, to Germany. It was with great relief when the last of the coffins was placed on the multiple hearse to go on the ferry back home.
Even after all these years there are still things very vivid in my mind, like the young Marine Captain, who was going back to the UK with his wife and young daughter. He survived but his wife and daughter were lost, but he refused to be pulled into the rescue boat and kept diving down into the dense and murky water trying to find his wife and child, and only when he was too exhausted to continue was he pulled to safety. A follow on to this was that his father came over in an effort to identify his daughter-in-law and grand child, and I was asked to walk around the coffins to see if I could identify the officer’s wife, so he could be taken straight to the coffin. I was given a description of the wife and walked around the coffins in an effort to identify her. What I am going to say now, only a soldier would understand, because it did not take me long to identify her, as even in death she looked like an ‘Officer’s Wife’.
It was at this point that I went to our Belgian Red Cross colleagues and asked if they could supply me with some Union Flags. A short time later (and where they got them from I have no idea) they produced about twenty for me. I had decided that any service personnel once identified would be placed along the back wall, and once their coffins had been secured the coffin would be draped with the Union Flag.
I can remember seeing this middle-aged couple who had been through the sports hall about 4 or 5 times, knowing that we were not going to receive any more bodies, I took the man to one side and asked who he was looking for. “My son,” he replied curtly. I explained quietly that we were not expecting any more bodies from the ferry and suggested that he went home. He asked me for some plain speaking. “If my son is brought off the ferry, will we recognise him?” he asked. I explained why possibly he would not be able to recognise his son, and that identification would be made by other means. “Remember your son as you always knew him”, I said. The man thanked me and asked to do him one more favour. He explained that he had a business to run back home but his wife would not leave until her son had been brought off the ferry. He asked me to speak to her. Initially I refused, but seeing the tears in his eyes and that gaunt look on his face, I agreed. We walked outside and I spoke to her, but I think it upset me more than it did her.
My last and most vivid recollection is fixing the identification label on the coffin of the last serviceman to be identified, a Lance Bombardier Thomas. I found myself leaning into the coffin and talking to him. I still do not know why I did it, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time.
So far I have only been speaking about myself and my involvement in this tragedy, but two of us travelled to Zeebrugge early that Saturday morning the 7th March 1987, and I mentioned that on arrival I was tasked to set up the Op’s Room and Tom Palmer was sent over to the makeshift mortuary at the Belgian Naval Base. Well, to this day Tom and I have never spoken about it, but I know that Tom and the others at the Navel Base, ‘God bless them’ really drew the short straw, their job was to collect all valuables from the bodies after which they hosed the bodies down to make them presentable before they came over to the sports hall.
With all the bodies identified and repatriated there was nothing left to do so we were allowed to return home. Having dropped Mike Ferrier off at Dortmund I telephoned my wife and told her I would be home in about one hour. On arriving home it was great to see a smiling face and, more important, there was a meal on the table. I had just sat down at the table when my son Simon came running in jumped on my lap and said “What was it like Dad?” and I burst out crying.
Some fours years later while I was serving at Shorncliffe in Kent, the CO, Roger Thies, asked me to go with him to the Essex Police Headquarters, where they wanted us to act as observers in an exercise involving a ferry disaster at Harwich Docks. Following the briefing we went to the docks and I was asked to observe the makeshift mortuaries. All the time I was there people kept coming up to me and asked me how we coped with the stress. I said it was easy, ‘ We just got pissed every night.’
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