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1987: Zeebrugge disaster was no accident
A coroner's inquest jury into the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise has returned verdicts of unlawful killing.

The outcome into the ferry disaster in March, which killed 187 people, has now opened the possibility of a criminal prosecution by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP).

In summing up, coroner Richard Sturt said the verdicts could be returned only if the jury believed a criminal act had been committed and that there had been gross negligence.

The coroner had stressed that the purpose of the inquest was to establish facts not blame, but insisted only the actions of three crewmen could have led to the deaths.

But many of the victims' families have made it clear they wish to see the Townsend-Thoresen company directors (now part of P&O) face prosecution, and not individual employees.

Peter Spooner, father of one of the victims said: "I'm still disappointed and sad that the responsibility did not seem to go up to the level it should have".

Mr Sturt made no comment after the verdicts at Dover Coroner's Court, but said papers would be sent to the Prime Minister and Minister for Transport as well as the DPP.

Michael Napier, solicitor for the families, said "relatives will be hoping the director will take this as seriously as one would expect him to".

'Disease of sloppiness'

After a public inquiry into the disaster, Lord Justice Sheen published a report in July which identified a "disease of sloppiness", and negligence at every level of the company's hierarchy.

Transport Secretary Paul Channon said no one was immune from prosecution but that any decision was the DPP's alone.

And in a judicial review earlier this week, the Divisional Court judged future prosecutions for corporate manslaughter might be feasible.

But this decision was explicitly embargoed until after today's verdicts, so as not to influence the jurors.

Assistant bosun Marc Stanley, one of the three crew members, was said by his lawyer to be "totally shocked" by the verdict. He was the only person to accept responsibility at the Sheen inquiry.

The seamen's unions representing the three men have pledged to campaign for a reversal of the verdict.

Captain David Lewry, the ferry master and Leslie Sabel, Chief Officer were suspended from duty earlier this year.

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Herald of Free Enterprise, on its way back to port after refloating
197 people died when the ferry capsized

Jury returns verdict for the deaths on board Enterprise

In Context
Over 190 people died when the roll-on roll-off ferry capsized off Zeebrugge, Belgium on 6 March 1987.

The bow doors had been left open after departure, and water flooded the car decks.

The tragedy led to new safety regulations in the British ferry industry. With the sinking of the Estonia for similar reasons in 1994 and the deaths of 850 people, new rules in international ferry safety were introduced in 1999.

The Crown Prosecution Service charged P&O European Ferries with corporate manslaughter in 1989 and seven employees with manslaughter.

The case collapsed but it set a precedent for corporate manslaughter being legally admissible in an English court.

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