'My friends died. They're partying now'

She has flashbacks of the 'Marchioness' disaster, and it's taken years to deal with survivor guilt, but life is good again, says the organiser of the riverboat party
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It was planned as the perfect party for her friend. Odette Penwarden helped to organise it: beautiful people partying through the night as they cruised on the Thames to celebrate the 26th birthday of millionaire banker Antonio Vasconcellos. That is how it started on a balmy night on the pleasure boat Marchioness, 20 years ago.

"I remember Antonio wanted to have a big party and it was me that suggested we have it on one of the river boats ... because I knew Steve [skipper of the Marchioness] and that his boat did late-night parties."

The evening could not have got off to a better start, she recalls: "It had been a beautiful, glorious day, there was great excitement; it was all very 'kissy-kissy' and 'hello darling' ... there were all different kinds of people there."

The party was in full swing and she was dancing with 28-year-old Jeffrey Gibbs, one of her best friends, at around a quarter to two in the morning. "All of a sudden there was a lurch and the boat swayed ... and then there was an almighty crash and the windows shattered and water came in. The only way I can describe what it was like was if you were in a washing machine because the water came in and tipped me over. I remember being under the water in the boat, being tossed about.

"I remember coming out, and it was like a champagne cork coming out of a bottle because there were quite a lot of us all came out together, sort of floundering about .... I could hear screams, I could hear people crying, a lot of shouting, a lot of people shouting people's names. And, because the water was warm, because it was a full moon, it didn't occur to me that people were going to die."

Fifty-one bodies were pulled from the Thames that night, the party boat full of carefree passengers crushed by the 1,880-ton dredger, Bowbelle, as they passed under Southwark Bridge.

Many of the partygoers that night were very young. At 42, Yorkshire-born Ms Penwarden was older than most. She was working as a marketing executive at Thames tourism company City Cruises back in 1989 – a job she left shortly after the disaster. With a failed marriage behind her, she had come to London in her mid thirties to make a fresh start.

As the 20th anniversary of the tragedy looms this Thursday, she speaks for the first time, with remarkable candour, about how she has struggled to rebuild her life and deal with her guilt at being the sole survivor of a group of five people she knew from that night. We sit together having a cup of tea in the refectory of Southwark Cathedral, a few minutes' walk away from where the Marchioness sank. Her memories are sharp and painful.

"I could have died that night; I came this close," she says quietly, reaching across the table and almost touching her thumb and forefinger together. But her face betrays no major emotion at this point. Her appearance is remarkably casual. In pale-pink linen trousers, white slip-on shoes and a turquoise T-shirt, with tanned face and streaked blonde hair, she could almost be chatting about her holiday. The real expression is in her eyes, which burn intensely as she recalls that night.

Discovering that her foot was tangled up in a cable, she managed to free herself and eventually managed to escape the boat through a broken window. Ms Penwarden refused to accept that her friends were among the dead. "It wasn't until two or three days afterwards that I thought, 'They're dead, they're not coming back ...', and then I got angry with them because I was having to deal with all this and they were up there," – she looks heavenwards – "having a party."

As she recounts her experiences I am struck by her calm, direct manner – testament to the years of therapy she has gone through. There's little obvious sign that she crawled out of a watery hell, that at times she has resigned herself to dying and contemplated suicide. Years of treatment for clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder blighted what had been a promising career in tourism. Any hopes of a long-term relationship are long vanished.

"They say there's something called survivors' guilt. Well, it took me three-and-a-half years of psychotherapy to come to terms with the fact that it was me that organised the party. I felt so guilty that I'd survived and Jeff and Antonio and Peter and the others hadn't survived and it was my idea to have the party on the river in the first place."

That she lived angered parents of others who didn't. "With some of the mothers, I was made to feel I'd survived and their kids had died and that wasn't right – that their kids were so bright and had such a brilliant future and I was just a 42-year-old woman .... They were parents of people I didn't know, who seemed to me to be very angry that I'd survived and their child hadn't."

One night, after the funeral of 26-year-old Peter Jay, another close friend who drowned when the Marchioness sank, she ended up on her own in a wine bar and considered taking her own life. "Somehow I finished up on my own with people I didn't know and had a moment of panic." She left the bar and headed straight to the river. "I was going to throw myself in the river and just before I did I thought I ought to ring my friend Pauline and she rang the Samaritans .... One of them came in a cab and picked me up.

"I haven't contemplated suicide since, but I used to see lorries and think one's going to mount the pavement and crush me .... I thought it doesn't matter if I die, I won't fight as I fought to get out of the Marchioness – I'll just let it go." Unable to work for several years after the disaster, Ms Penwarden took refuge in her religion, becoming a volunteer at Southwark cathedral, and in fighting for some sort of justice. She never got it. "No, there hasn't been justice," she says firmly. "We are not going to get any justice now. We all knew that at the end we wouldn't get anywhere, and that's what happened," she says. "We all knew they'd [the Bowbelle crew] been drinking .... It upsets me that none of them ever said sorry."

After years of being plagued by vivid flashbacks and nightmares she still needs regular counselling. "To this day I still cannot watch anyone being underwater on television ... very occasionally I will still get a flashback to that night.

"I think if the Marchioness hadn't happened I might well be in a relationship now. But the trauma of something like that changes you. I'm single; I've had a couple of relationships since, but nothing serious and nothing for a while." Chuckling, the 62- year-old, who lives in a studio flat in Beckton, east London, with three cats for company, adds: "When people say, 'Are you married?', I say, 'I'm happily divorced, thank you.'" Brushing aside the fact that she doesn't have children, she says: "I was never the maternal sort."

For the past few years she has been working at the diocesan office near Southwark cathedral. She says "I've never been happier. It's the perfect kind of job for me. I'm front of house and spend all my time on the phone, talking to clergy and people like that, and it's a really nice atmosphere."

But she adds: "My life isn't exciting any more. I don't have any adventures. My life is good but it would have been much more fun if they'd still been here."

There are scars that will never heal: she cannot go on crowded Tube trains and always has to know where the nearest exits are when she is travelling on trains or buses. "One thing it left me with was this huge consciousness of my own mortality and this fact that you can die just like that. The one thing that does upset me sometimes is when I'm walking across London Bridge in the early evening and I hear music coming from a party boat. And it takes me right back to that night and I think about the people on that boat and hope that they are going to be OK – and think about what happened to us."

"There has been a lot of trauma. The worst thing was losing a circle of friends overnight. Some of the most important people in my life just disappeared ... and one of the hardest things to come to terms with after 20 years is that you cannot help wondering what they would be doing now."

She adds: "It's part of my life but it's not all my life. I have actually come out of this as a strong woman and I've had an extra 20 years and that's the most important thing – the fact that I'm still here. I've been to hell and back and it's taken a long time to be happy, but I'm fine now."

And she walks away, towards London Bridge and the river.

A disaster and its aftermath: The painful route to improved river safety

August 1989:

Marchioness sinks after colliding with the dredger Bowbelle.

April 1990:

The director for public prosecutions says Bowbelle skipper Captain Douglas Henderson to be prosecuted for not keeping a proper lookout.

June 1990:

Inquests adjourned until criminal proceedings have ended.

July 1991:

Mr Henderson acquitted after a second jury fails to reach a verdict.

August 1991:

Marine Accident Investigation Branch report blames accident on failure of lookouts.

November 1991:

Private prosecution brought against Bowbelle's owners.

March 1992:

It emerges that 25 victims had their hands cut off for fingerprinting.

June 1992:

Manslaughter case against Bowbelle's owners dismissed.

July 1992:

Coroner refuses to resume inquests. Families fight court battle to overturn the decision.

April 1995:

Inquests resume. Verdict – unlawful killing.

October 2000:

Public Inquiry begins, led by Lord Justice Clarke.

January 2001:

Lord Clarke's report blames poor lookouts and criticises owners of both vessels; makes 30 recommendations to improve river safety.