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1953: 130 die in ferry disaster

A car ferry has sunk in the Irish Sea in one of the worst gales in living memory claiming the lives of more than 130 passengers and crew.

The Princess Victoria, a British Railways car ferry, bound for Larne in Northern Ireland, had left Stranraer on the south-west coast of Scotland an hour before when the stern gates to the car deck were forced open in heavy seas.


"The waves... have become the tomb of 130 of our fellow citizens"

Lord Basil Brookeborough

Water flooded into the ship and as the cargo shifted, the ferry, one of the first of the roll on-roll off design, fell onto her side and within four hours she sank.

Among the passengers who perished were the Northern Ireland Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Major J M Sinclair, and Sir Walter Smiles, the Ulster Unionist MP for North Down.

The Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Lord Basil Brookeborough, paid this tribute: "The waves that yesterday were mountainous are relatively calm again but they've become the tomb of 130 of our fellow citizens. Under this cruel stroke of fate, many families are sorrowing today, they have the heartfelt sympathy of us all."

Captain radioed for help

Tragedy struck at 0845 GMT when Captain James Ferguson radioed the coastguard to say the ferry was "not under command and needed a tug".

At 1252 the captain radioed to say the engine room was flooded and he had decided to abandon ship.

Later messages made clear that the ship was listing so much that it was impossible to launch the lifeboats.

One lifeboat was smashed against the ship's side. Another, containing eight women and a child, was swamped by huge waves and sank.

RAF planes were alerted to the sinking at about 1500. They arrived at the scene half-an-hour later and dropped rubber dinghies but blinding squalls of sleet and rain hampered their efforts.

One of the lifeboatmen sent to the rescue said they spent two hours searching for survivors. One man was found clinging to a raft on which were four other people who had died from exposure.

The first survivors, including Petty Officer Jay Yeomans, were landed at Donaghadee, 20 miles east of Belfast.

Fusilier Jeoffrey Bingley was another survivor. "I didn't expect to be alive... I was in the lower deck when the boat started to go over and I scrambled down the side of it and got into a lifeboat," he said.

"We pushed away with about 20 on board and managed to pick a few up out of the sea. We didn't have any oars - the sea just took its course."

In Context
A total of 67 bodies were recovered from the sea after the Princess Victoria sank.

Only 44 of the 177 people who set out on the crossing are known to have survived. The captain went down with his ship.

An inquiry into the disaster was told the rescue ship, HMS Contest, took longer than expected to reach the Princess Victoria because of confusion over her exact position.

The captain continued to give her position off the Scottish coast until minutes before she sank when he radioed to say the Irish coast was visible.

The inquiry concluded the ferry owners were to blame for the poor design of the stern doors.

The highest civilian award for bravery, the George Cross, was given posthumously to the ferry's radio operator, David Broadfoot, who remained at his post sending out messages for assistance until the ship sank.


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