Marchioness was 'a disaster waiting to happen'

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Survivors and relatives of the 51 people who died in the 1989 Marchioness riverboat disaster entered the final phase of their long and difficult quest for the truth yesterday as a formal investigation was opened into the accident.

Survivors and relatives of the 51 people who died in the 1989 Marchioness riverboat disaster entered the final phase of their long and difficult quest for the truth yesterday as a formal investigation was opened into the accident.

After 11 years of being "insulted, intimidated and patronised", they were promised by Lord Justice Clarke, the wreck commissioner, that the investigation for which they campaigned so long would be "full, fair and fearless".

The Marchioness, which had been chartered for a birthday celebration, sank near Southwark Bridge on the Thames after being struck by the 1,475-ton dredger Bowbelle at 1.46am on 20 August 1989.The pleasure boat went down within a minute, trapping many of the 132 revellers inside and leaving others to fight for their lives in the dark tidal waters.

Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Attorney General, told the hearing at Westminster Central Hall that experts had been predicting such an accident for many years. There had been numerous collisions between dredgers and passenger boats in the years beforehand, including one in 1983 involving the Bowbelle itself.

The cause had been put down to "grossly inadequate visibility from the respective steering positions", the same reason outlined by a Marine Accident Investigation Branch report into the Marchioness tragedy in 1990.

Lord Williams read from a Department of Transport report at the time which said: "Until such time as a requirement for excellent all-round visibility is made and enforced for all vessels using those, or similar waterways, accidents of this nature will continue to occur - possibly with fatal results."

The Attorney General added: "How is it that if so many people had known for so long of the risk of serious collision on the Thames, such a thing could still happen? What steps had been taken in the light of the known risks and why did those steps prove to be so tragically inadequate?

"The Marchioness ought to have kept to the starboard side of the river and so avoided impeding the passage of Bowbelle. And Bowbelle, had she observed Marchioness heading for the centre arch of Southwark Bridge, ought to have reduced her speed and sought to alert Marchioness to her presence by sound signals. It is difficult to imagine that the collision would have occurred had both vessels kept a good lookout," he said.

It would be for the investigation to decide whether the skipper of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson, was guilty of serious negligence, he said, and whether he should have his certificate removed. Mr Henderson was formally acquitted in 1991 of a charge of failing to keep a proper lookout after juries twice failed to reach verdicts.

Charles Heddon Cave, QC, for the Marchioness Action Group, and Michael Mansfield, QC, for the Marchioness Contact Group, highlighted a string of errors which they believed led to the tragedy. Mr Mansfield said: "There was overwhelming opportunities for the Bowbelle crew to have spotted the Marchioness and taken action to avoid this collision. The safety and rescue provision on the river was seriously deficient and what happened was a disaster waiting to happen."

The investigation is expected to last until Christmas.

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