`People were dying and I could do nothing'

The Independent Archive; 21 August 1989 At least 26 people were killed yesterday when a pleasure boat, the `Marchioness', was struck from behind by a dredger and sank in the Thames. Eye- witnesses tell the story
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"WE WERE having a wonderful time when it turned into a nightmare . . . I have lost all my friends - I don't know where they are."

The stark words of the unnamed survivor of the sinking of the Marchioness record the horror of how a birthday party aboard a Thames pleasure boat turned into a tragedy.

Another survivor, Dino Pereirra, 21, was talking to his friend Rod Lay on the deck when he noticed the Bowbelle moving through the water towards them.

"We were all having a great time on the boat, that is what made it seem so much more strange and tragic. People were drowning around us only half an hour later.

"It was about 20 minutes after we set off that we saw the vessel hit us. It looked like a tanker but I didn't know exactly what kind of boat it was except that compared to our boat it was enormous. I did not realise that such huge boats existed on the Thames - we were utterly dwarfed by it."

The menacing bulk of the Bowbelle also left Mr Lay, 29, transfixed in the moments before the collision.

"We could not believe it at the time. It seemed so huge and black and it filled our whole field of vision. We were all joking about it, assuming that it was going to skirt around us. But it became pretty clear that this was not going to miss us as it came right up to the side of our boat.

"Then it hit us. It was not an enormous bang - it just seemed to glide into the side of us. Our boat was so small that, instead of being knocked out of the way, it seemed to be getting pushed under this enormous boat.

"Suddenly everyone stopped thinking about the music and began screaming. Mostly people were shocked more than anything else, but gradually the full realisation of what was happening began to dawn on us.

"Our boat began quickly to slide into the water under the tremendous weight of what seemed to us to be a tanker.

"Before we knew it the water was all around us. I could see people getting sucked underneath the water by the huge currents created by the boat going under."

On board the party steamer Harlesden which was cruising alongside the Marchioness its disc jockey, Rob Elliot, saw the doomed ship sink in "less than 30 seconds".

"We heard a loud cracking noise and people shouting. We saw people in the water, maybe 50 or 60. Some people were on the boat and it was sinking. It was smashed to bits and it sank straight down within seconds. I don't know what happened to the people on it."

He described how the skipper of the Harlesden reversed to pick up survivors in the water, even though many passengers on the boat were shouting to be let off because they feared they were also going to sink.

One passenger on the Harlesden recalled: "People were going under and coming up. For every 20 people I saw going under a bridge, I saw only 10 coming out the other side."

Gerry Ray, the landlord of a riverside pub, the Founder's Arms, was clearing up at about 2am when he and his wife Jan heard the dull crunch of the impact between the barge and the Marchioness. After rushing outside he heard the screams and shouts of those who had fallen into the Thames. He said: "I could see 20 people floating down the river. I could not see if they were trying to swim but they were carried down the river and under Blackfriars Bridge.

"I was seeing people dying and there was nothing I could do about it." He said that rescue rings once fixed to the bank had been removed because they were continually being thrown in by vandals.

Mrs Ray added: "In the end there were only one or two voices but the police could not locate them. There were policemen on the river bank and in boats calling `Where are you?' and they were still screaming. The whole thing must have lasted for half an hour."

From the Home News pages of `The Independent', Monday 21 August 1989