Parents' fight cost them their savings

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A BEAUTIFUL and talented 19-year-old ballerina, Francesca Dallaglio, was one of the victims of the Marchioness tragedy. In the early hours of 20 August 1989 she drowned with 50 other people in the dark, swirling waters of the Thames. They were among 120 who had been celebrating the 26th birthday of a financier, Antonio Vasconcellos, on the disco boat when it was struck by a dredger, the Bowbelle.

Francesca's death was to have a terrible effect on her family. Her brother, Lawrence, then an up-and-coming rugby player, who had turned down an invitation to go along with his sister, was later to say that his success as a player, culminating with a period as Englandcaptain, was motivated by the death of his sister.

For Francesca's parents, Eileen and Vincenzo, it was to be the beginning of a single-minded fight for justice that was to last 10 years.

A survivor of the tragedy was Iain Philpott, a successful 26-year-old photographer. His girlfriend, 24-year-old Tamsin Cole, died. He can recall swimming in the Thames with voices shouting and screaming all around him. "I can remember it with the same clarity today as I had the day after," he says.

Eileen Dallaglio and Iain Philpott have been key figures in the Marchioness Action Group, which has demanded a full public inquiry for nearly a decade, and they were present when Mr Prescott made his announcement yesterday.

From the moment the 1,475-tonne MV Bowbelle hit the 90-tonne Marchioness at 1.46am just above the Cannon Street railway bridge the disaster was turned into a tragedy by official bungling and arrogance. The full extent of the negligence that cost 51 people their lives was to take years of pressure, mainly by the solicitor Louise Christian, to reveal.

Tapes of radio traffic on the river that night showed that the river police, told of an accident, headed off in the wrong direction like "John Wayne and the cavalry". Only two ambulances turned up in the first half an hour. Rescuers were hindered by poor co-ordination and different radio channels used by the emergency services. Some people were left in the swirling river for more than half an hour and were found, some dead, some alive, much further upstream.

Despite early requests for an public inquiry the Government referred the matter to the Maritime Accident Investigation Branch. Their report concluded: "The inspectors' final finding that there was no wilful misconduct in either vessel ... is fully borne out by the preceding sections of this report and there are no recommendations for any disciplinary action for be taken."

The report, however, did point out many of the immediate circumstances that had caused the disaster. The Bowbelle's look-out did not realise that the Marchioness was on a collision course until it was too late. When he did, he had no effective means to tell the captain.

Media investigations later showed that the Bowbelle had a long history of accidents and safety problems.

Treatment of the families was appalling. They were stopped from seeing the bodies of their loved ones. Later they discovered that 27 of the bodies had had their hands secretly removed "to assist identification".

The coroner, Paul Knapman, was reluctant to resume an adjourned inquest. Eileen Dallaglio and another victim's mother, Margaret Lockwood Croft, challenged the coroner and won. The inquest was finally held in 1995 by Dr John Burton, and the jury ruled "unlawful killing".

In two separate trials, the Bowbelle's skipper, Captain Douglas Henderson, was acquitted of failing to keep a proper look-out after juries failed to reach verdicts. No prosecution for alleged negligence against the boat'sowners was forthcoming and in 1996 the file was closed for "insufficient evidence".

Shortly after Labour was elected, Glenda Jackson, then a Transport minister, promised to consider a public inquiry. Nearly two more years passed. But the persistence of the action group paid off yesterday.