Gap 'opened in ferry gangway before fall': Witnesses claim walkway seemed unstable before the tragedy. Christian Wolmar and Simon Midgley report

WITNESSES to yesterday's disaster at the port of Ramsgate described how a gap opened up between the sections of the walkway just before it collapsed and how it had seemed unstable as people disembarked from the previous journey.

Michael Hedges, 47, a labourer from Taplow in Buckinghamshire, one of the last passengers on the ship before the accident occurred, said that while he was crossing the walkway he noticed a six-inch gap between two of its sections. 'I jumped over it, which was difficult because I was wearing a backpack.'

Another embarking passenger, Tony Dixon, said after he had stepped onto the walkway, 'the power went off. We all started to shake and rattle from the bumping around and we had to hang on to the side of the rail. The other end had fallen down, someone was hanging on in the middle. He was not unconscious, he was hanging on because if he had let go, he would have slipped into the water.'

Paul Eagle, 35, an artist from Ladbroke Grove, west London, who had arrived on the ferry from Belgium the previous evening, said that when they disembarked, 'the gangway was moving. It was floating.'

Emergency crews were on the scene within five minutes of the accident and firefighters used hydraulic equipment to free trapped passengers from the wreckage of the collapsed walkway - the highest in use at English Channel ferry ports.

Divisonal Fire Officer Neil Fowler said: 'When our men got there it was a horrific scene with the bodies piled on top of each other. The covered walkway was like a tube and when it collapsed they simply fell down its length into a pile. We had difficulties with lighting when we got there and we had to make the walkway safe before we could evacuate the injured.'

The section of the walkway which collapsed connected the passenger departure terminal with an intermediate platform. The second section stands on a floating pontoon and the third links to the ferry. The lowering of the third section is operated by a controller standing on the pontoon deck.

Lester Champs, the port manager, said there was a flexible joint at the connection between the two sections, with two pins, one vertical and one horizontal which acted as a universal joint.

Mr Champs emphasised that the ferry had not collided with the walkway, that there had been no swell and it was not windy. He said last night that he felt 'personally sure' the accident was due to mechanical failure rather than human error.

The Health and Safety Executive investigation, which started within hours of the accident, is likely to take several weeks. Its findings will be made public. If any party is found to have been negligent, the executive can bring criminal proceedings, but it would have difficulty bringing an action against a foreign company which did not have assets in Britain.

(Photograph and graphic omitted)