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1987: Zeebrugge - a survivor's tale

Nineteen-year-old Simon Osborne was returning from a day trip to Belgium on 6 March 1987, when his ferry capsized off the port of Zeebrugge.

He was trapped inside the Herald of Free Enterprise for over two hours before being rescued and taken to safety.

Two of the seven friends with him died in the disaster.

We all boarded the ferry in high spirits - we'd had a good day out in Ostend. We went our separate ways and arranged to meet in the bar later on.

I had to get some duty-free and I was queuing at the perfume counter when it became clear that something was beginning to go wrong.

The ship jolted - quite violently, but it didn't seem significant enough to raise any fears at that particular moment.

But then within a few seconds there was a second much more violent jolt and the ship literally tipped over as if you were knocking over a glass of water - it seemed that quick.

'Horrific sights'

I was thrown onto my back and I slid down the floor of the lounge.

I came to a halt on the front of the bar - which as the ship had capsized had gone from vertical to horizontal.

So I was actually standing upright before the water started coming into the ship.

By this stage the lights were still on and I saw some horrific sights.

People were falling from one side of the ship to the other - somersaulting down.


"The water burst though the portholes and the deck doors - I was absolutely terrified"

Bottles of perfume and whisky were flying around - nothing appeared to have been bolted down.

You can imagine what it was like turning something that size over - all the debris was crashing around about my ears as I stood there.

And then I saw the water burst though the portholes and the deck doors.

I was absolutely terrified.

By this stage all the lights had gone out and I felt the freezing cold water hit my legs and I floated up with it.

'Unbelievable noise'

I was fairly convinced the ship was going to sink and I'd be trapped and almost certainly perish.

But that feeling only lasted until it became clear the ship finally - luckily - came to rest on a sandbank.

The noise was horrendous from start to finish - a terrible, unbelievable, metallic grinding noise, breaking glass and the screams of people who were injured, falling or terrified.

I thought I should keep as calm as I could and a certain element of calm did come over me when I was floating in the water.


"I could either stay where I was and risk dying of hypothermia or make a move"

It then became decision time.

I was trapped in the lounge area of the ship. There were a lot of people around me, but as time wore on it became clear that many were dying, presumably from the cold.

I could either stay where I was and risk dying of hypothermia or make a move to try and at least get to a place within the ship that I thought I could be rescued from.

I could see in the not too far distance - maybe 20 or 30 m away - where windows had been broken and ropes had been lowered down.

So I pulled myself through life jackets, through the debris of the disaster, and unfortunately through dead bodies, to get to beneath a window.


"The hardest thing to come to terms with in the years after was the death of my two school friends."

By the time I'd done that there were rescue teams in the ship and very quickly a harness was put around me and I was winched onto the side of the ferry.

I was very lucky to get out alive.

If all eight of us had come back it might have been a big adventure we would have dined out on.

But the hardest thing to come to terms with in the years after was the death of my two school friends.

In Context
Simon Osborne escaped the stricken ferry with minor injuries.

His parents were on holiday in Brussels and they were reunited within hours of the disaster.

He is now a journalist and lives in west London.


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