Pleasure boat disaster on River Thames was `a

A birthday voyage from celebration to tragedy THE QUESTIONS
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The Independent Online

At about 1.25am on 20 August 1989, a clear, moonlit night, more than 120 young people left Charing Cross pier on a tiny disco boat for an all-night birthday party along the Thames.

Those who joined Antonio de Vasconcellos, a 26-year-old banker from West London, on the Marchioness to eat, drink, dance and have their tarot cards read, were mainly in their teens or twenties, many of them actors, models or artists.

Within minutes of leaving, the pleasure boat collided with a massive Thames sand dredger, the Bowbelle. Fifty-one people on board the Marchioness died, more than in the disasters at King's Cross, Clapham, or in the M1 aircrash. The disaster was a "predictable event that was utterly preventable", Michael Mansfield QC, representing the families, told the second inquest into the disaster when it ended yesterday.

Nearly a quarter of an hour before the Marchioness left the pier, the Bowbelle, with its crew of nine, had started its journey down the Thames and out to sea. Its captain, Douglas Henderson, was at the bridge, having spent the late afternoon drinking six pints of beer.

The skipper of the Marchioness could only see directly behind by leaving the wheel and looking through a hatch. Mr Henderson had severely limited visibility in front. Because of the Bowbelle's "trim" (the angle between bow and stern) that night, the sea surface of invisibility amounted to 500 yards - double the amount allowed.

The Marchioness passed its sister ship, the Hurlingham, as they approached Southwark Bridge. It was the Hurlingham's passengers who first noticed the 262ft-long dredger. Before their eyes, the Marchioness seemed to be pushed round and then under the bow of the Bowbelle before it went under.

Here stories diverge. The Marine Accident Investigation Branch report said "the collision took place . . . just above Cannon Street Railway Bridge and near the middle of the river".

But more than 10 witnesses from the Hurlingham, arguably in the best position to see, told the inquest the collision took place before or under Southwark Bridge. If they were correct, it would have been impossible for the Marchioness to have been changing course to move in front of the Bowbelle, as had previously been believed.

The MAIB report said it appeared to a look-out on the Bowbelle and to shore witnesses that the "Marchioness altered course to port". But Captain James de Coverly, who co-ordinated the inquiry, told the inquest it had never been intended to imply there had been a deliberate and significant change of course. Any swing had been due to the swell of water between the ships or a slight realignment to approach the arches of Cannon Street Railway Bridge.

On the Bowbelle, lack of communication was proving fatal. A look-out, Terence Blayney, who had drunk eight pints of beer the previous afternoon, was positioned on the forecastle. But David James, the chief engineer of the Bowbelle, confirmed to the inquest that there were no loud hailers or telephones for direct communication - the three walkie-talkies had not been used for some time.

When collision was inevitable, Mr Blayney had to shout nearly the length of a football pitch. The chief engineer said he could not understand a word. Those on the deck of the Marchioness saw the Bowbelle seconds before their ship tipped over, throwing them into the Thames. When the first jolt was felt downstairs, guests had started singing a pop song, Rock The Boat. The song was never finished.

The ship was plunged into darkness and turned over. Furniture was thrown around, trapping and injuring many of the party-goers. As the ship sank, the waters rose around them and many were swept out into the Thames. For the fortunate, the return to the surface meant they had fought only half the battle. Of those who escaped from the vessel a quarter would die in the water. Many of those rescued had to survive in the Thames for at least 15 minutes.

It is impossible to establish whether any of the deaths were due to the confused rescue operation. The first alert came at 1.46am when the Hurlingham was heard over marine radio broadcasting "Wapping Police, Wapping Police, emergency. Pleasure boat is sunk, Cannon Street Railway Bridge, all emergency aid please".

James Currie, the captain on duty at Woolwich marine radio service, misheard and thought the location was Battersea Bridge - the opposite direction. He gave the misheard location to the police, who unknowingly sent the fire brigade boats in the wrong direction."I can't explain why I heard Battersea road bridge rather than Cannon Street rail bridge," he said.

Twenty minutes after the collision the fire brigade was given the real location. When they arrived at Blackfriars Bridge they could find no survivors.

Passengers on the Hurlingham rescued more than 20 survivors. One police launch managed to drag 22 people on to their boat, which was designed for three crew and two passengers. Another managed between 15 and 20. In all, 80 people survived.

Although the search continued for most of the night, no one was found alive after the first 30 minutes. Only one body was recovered that night by the fire brigade. No others were found until the following day when the wreck was raised east of Southwark Bridge: there were 24 bodies found in different sections of the boat. Over the next few days the remaining 26 bodies were gradually recovered along the river, the last being Mr de Vasconcellos himself.

In what families claimed was a final indignity, all but two of those found in the river had their hands removed for fingerprinting purposes, although only two were identified this way.

Most of the families only found out their relatives had been treated in this way more than two years later. Linda Ali-Hunt, whose daughter Julie died, was one of the few to know and said she was asked to keep quiet about it by police so as not to distress the other mothers.

The families were to discover at the inquest that there had been no written records kept about when it was decided hands should be removed, or when the request to do so was granted by the coroner.