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Thursday, 30 January, 2003, 15:29 GMT
Ferry disaster victims remembered
Princess Victoria
Princess Victoria - one of first roll on-roll off car ferries

The UK's worst peacetime sea disaster claimed more than 130 lives on 31 January 1953.

The ferry Princess Victoria went down off the County Down coast with only 44 survivors out of 177 people who set out that stormy morning on the short crossing from Scotland.

Map of ships final journey
The Princess Victoria's final journey
Every woman and child on board the ship died in the disaster.

It was one of the first roll on-roll off ferries built, and its fate was sealed after a huge wave crashed through the car deck doors on the North Channel route between Stranraer and Larne.

With a distance of only 20 miles separating the coasts of Northern Ireland and Scotland, the Princess Victoria was never more than 10 miles from dry land.

0745: Princess Victoria leaves Stranraer
0900: Wave bursts through stern doors
0946: First emergency signal sent: No tugs available
1032: SOS call: "Car deck flooded"
1100: Portpatrick lifeboat given wrong directions
1300: Starboard engine room flooded - position critical
1308: Ship lying on beam end
1315: "We are preparing to abandon ship"
1330: Steamer passes Victoria without seeing her
1340: Passengers ordered to deck
1358: Last message from ferry's radio operator
Severe storms battered the British Isles and European coastlines that weekend, causing floods which killed 350 people in eastern England and some 1,600 in the Netherlands, as the North Sea streamed in over its flat lands.

Weather forecasting was not as advanced as it is today. The forecast for that day was just: Cloudy with a little light rain or drizzle. Mild.

Captain James Ferguson had little idea of the conditions which awaited his ship beyond the relative calm of Stranraer harbour on that fateful Saturday morning.

The sailing was delayed by 45 minutes because windy conditions at the docks meant its 45 tons of cargo had to be loaded by hand instead of using a crane.

This was nothing out of the ordinary though, and the Princess Victoria eventually left port at 0745 GMT, 45 minutes late.

Captain Ferguson's ship made slow progress up Loch Ryan towards the open sea, charting its precarious passage while fighting a gale.

Unusually for such a routine crossing, it took 45 minutes just to escape the loch, but the crew had experienced rougher sailings before.

Captain Ferguson made no attempt to save himself
Captain Ferguson made no attempt to save himself
Once out on the open sea, the ferry was tossed about by the churning waves.

Then, about 0900 GMT, one massive wave punched through the five-foot stern steel doors, cracking them wide open.

Icy waters flooded through, engulfing the car deck.

As the crew desperately battled to close the buckled doors, the Princess Victoria lurched violently.

At 0945 GMT, two hours after leaving Stranraer, wireless operator David Broadfoot tapped out his first emergency signal.

Sixty signals sent

"Hove to off mouth of Loch Ryan. Vessel not under command. Urgent assistance of tug required."

In the desperate hours that followed, Broadfoot would send 60 Morse code signals for help right up until his final message at 1358 GMT.

Disaster was not inevitable at this stage, but poor communications and a lack of available tugs left the Princess Victoria stranded at the mercy of the storm.

Broadfoot sent a SOS signal at 1032 GMT: "Car deck flooded. Heavy list to starboard. Require immediate assistance. Ship not under command."

The destroyer HMS Contest was sent out from Rothesay, while salvage steamer Salveda joined the operation from the Firth of Clyde.

Princess Victoria
Stern doors buckled and waves flooded car deck
The Portpatrick lifeboat left its harbour in Scotland at 1100 GMT in search of the Princess Victoria.

After battling through heavy seas, at 1244 GMT it reached the position at which Broadfoot had first signalled.

Unknown to the lifeboatmen, the stricken ship's engines were still firing, and the Princess Victoria was spluttering its way towards the Northern Ireland coast, seven miles beyond the lifeboat and listing badly.

With no radar on board, the ferry was virtually impossible to find in the hazardous conditions.

The vessel had drifted miles off its intended course and was being swept down the North Channel towards the Copeland Islands off Donaghadee.

As power went out and emergency exit lights came on to signal escape routes, passengers and crew alike were becoming violently seasick.

The Princess Victoria was now practically on her side, and preparations to abandon ship began around 1300 GMT.

Lines rigged

People had been ordered to move from the lounge to the higher port side passenger deck, where crew members were getting the lifeboats ready for launch.

The ferry was tilting over at an angle of nearly 45 degrees. Lines were rigged to allow passengers to clamber up the slippery gangways.

Those unable or unwilling to leave the lounge simply had to be abandoned to await their fate. One man refused to leave his dog behind.

Lifeboats were untied and left in the hope they would float free when the Princess Victoria eventually, inevitably went over.

HMS Contest came tantalisingly close to Princess Victoria around 1330 GMT, but poor visability meant that the destroyer could not see the ferry.

Over 1,600 died in Holland as storms hit Europe
Over 1,600 died in Holland as storms hit Europe
Some passengers on the deck could make out its outline through the blizzard of spray, but could only watch helplessly as it continued its search, working off wrong directions.

While wireless operator Broadfoot was tapping his last message, the ferry started to slowly go down.

Many leapt onto rafts and lifeboats or straight into the water.

When the lifeboat containing most of the women and children was launched, the wind sent it crashing against the hull.

The boat smashed and everyone on board was thrown into the icy waters.

Three of the lifeboats floated clear, one with 29 people on board. It was later picked up by the Donaghadee lifeboat.

Neither wireless operator Broadfoot nor Captain Ferguson made any attempt to save himself.

The wireless operator never left his post, while the captain was last seen on the bridge, giving orders as he clasped the rail with one hand, raising a salute with the other.

Maynard Sinclair
Victim: Maynard Sinclair, deputy prime minister at Stormont
Among those who died were Major Maynard Sinclair, Northern Ireland finance minister and deputy prime minister at Stormont.

Another MP who was on board, Sir Walter Smiles of North Down, also died.

The design of car ferries changed after the disaster.

An inquiry found the owners responsible for not ensuring the stern doors were strong enough to withstand heavy seas.

David Broadfoot was posthumously awarded the George Cross medal, the highest civilian award for bravery.

The wreckage of the Princess Victoria still lies at the bottom of the Irish Sea, five miles north north east of the Copeland Islands.

Fifty years on, people have gathered at coastal towns in Northern Ireland and Scotland to commemorate the 133 lives lost on the Princess Victoria.

See also:

31 Jan 03 | N Ireland
14 Apr 02 | UK
02 Apr 02 | N Ireland
17 Jan 01 | Europe
01 Oct 02 | Africa
06 Mar 02 | England
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