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Wednesday, August 18, 1999 Published at 11:50 GMT 12:50 UK


Inquiry into Marchioness sinking

Tragedy: Marchioness sank in 1989 killing 51 people

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has announced a public inquiry into safety on the River Thames and the Marchioness disaster 10 years ago.

The BBC's Social Affairs Correspondent Alison Holt reports on the decision to hold a public inquiry into the tragedy
A senior judge will chair the independent inquiry into safety on the Thames and the circumstances surrounding the "last and worst collision" on the river, Mr Prescott said.

The announcement comes days before the 10th anniversary of the sinking of the riverboat in which 51 people died.

The Marchioness sank after a collision with the dredger Bowbelle on 20 August 1989.

[ image: Prescott: Inquiry will be independent]
Prescott: Inquiry will be independent
Survivors and those bereaved have been pressing the Labour government for a public inquiry.

Mr Prescott said: "This inquiry cannot bring the loved ones back but it can and, I hope will, bring some peace of mind to know that the full story can be told and that lessons can be learnt for the future."

The review will look at what had been done to improve river safety in the 10 years since the tragedy.

The inquiry will take evidence from the Marchioness relatives group and recommend both safety improvements and any further investigation considered necessary.

It is expected to produce an interim report by the end of the year with recommendations made within 18 months.

Mr Prescott said: "The Marchioness disaster was the last and the worst of a series of collisions on the Thames in the 1980s.

"Thankfully, no other collisions occurred which have cost lives on the Thames since then.

"But it has raised concerns about the boat designs, the crew, readiness of the emergency services and the way people were treated."

Mr Prescott, who is also transport secretary, said it was important to review safety on the Thames considering the build up of river traffic, especially in the Millennium year.

A Marine Accident Investigation Branch report in August 1991 said the failure of look-outs on both ships involved in the accident was the immediate cause of the tragedy.

[ image: Failure of look-outs was the cause of the tragedy]
Failure of look-outs was the cause of the tragedy
The report also cited marine regulation faults going back 25 years.

The Bowbelle skipper, Captain Douglas Henderson, was formally acquitted of a charge of failing to keep a proper look-out after juries twice failed to reach verdicts.

An inquest jury returned a verdict of "unlawful killing" in the case, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to go ahead with criminal proceedings.

The Marchioness Action Group had recently written to Mr Prescott asking him not only to announce a public inquiry but to broaden that inquiry into an investigation of the whole state of Thames safety.

The former chairman of the action group, Billy Gorman, said: "We've waited nine years, 11 months and 29 days for this decision, it has been a long, hard and difficult wait.

"We have fought battle after battle. When we started we easily believed we'd get an automatic public inquiry and compensation, how wrong we were."

Survivors and relatives will be among the hundreds of people expected to attend a memorial service at Southwark Cathedral in south London on Friday.

Mr Prescott is expected to attend the service and Southwark North and Bermondsey Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes will read a lesson.

Mr Hughes said: "Today's news makes the campaign of so many people for so long at last worthwhile."

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