At 6:30pm on Friday 6 March 1987, the cross-Channel roll on roll off ferry ‘Herald of Free Enterprise’, operated by Townsend Thoresen, left Zeebrugge in Belgium with 533 passengers and crew abroad. Some five minute later she had capsized in shallow water outside the harbour and lay half-submerged on her port side in complete darkness and extremely cold water. 193 people perished in the United Kingdom's worst peace-time marine tragedy since the sinking of the ‘Titanic’ in 1912. Some 340 people were saved, in large part due to the actions of the crew and the heroic and efficient operation of the Belgian rescue and hospital services.The ship had capsized so quickly the crew were unable to send out an SOS. Given that the design and buoyancy of most modern ships is such that, in the event of an imminent capsize or other emergency, there should be sufficient time to deploy lifesaving equipment and fully evacuate, the accident had serious implications.
According to the official enquiry, promptly ordered by the Government, the fundamental error was that the ship put to sea with its outer and inner bow doors fully open. As speed built up, a flood of water entered the vehicle deck and caused the rapid sinking. Blame for the accident was attributed to four crew members and the Townsend Thoresen management. The disaster shook the whole community of Dover and the surrounding area. There was hardly a family which did not have a family member or know someone on board the ship, or had family and friends involved in the cross-Channel trade. There is are memorial windows to the disaster in the churches of St Mary-the-Virgin in Dover and St Margaret of Antioch at St Margaret's-at-Cliffe, near Dover.