A typically British disaster that should never have happened

'Six years before the Marchioness sank, officials were pretty sure a disaster would occur'
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The Independent Online

On a clear night in the middle of August 1989 on the river Thames in central London, a dredger, the Bowbelle, and a passenger vessel, the Marchioness, collided.

On a clear night in the middle of August 1989 on the river Thames in central London, a dredger, the Bowbelle, and a passenger vessel, the Marchioness, collided.

The Marchioness was carrying more than 100 young people who were celebrating the 26th birthday of Antonio Vasconcellos, a banker, when the incident happened. The Marchioness sank and 51 people lost their lives. It was, in the words of the official report by Lord Justice Clarke, "a catastrophe which should never have happened".

It was something that meant that, in the words of Eileen Dallaglio, a mother of one of the victims, "we have been emotionally crippled and emotionally raped over the last 12 years. It is time now for us to pick up the pieces in our lives and go forward, but first we have to see what can be done to tackle those responsible".

And the sinking of the Marchioness was a typically British disaster. The findings of the public inquiry under Lord Justice Clarke published before the weekend show that, from beginning to end, the episode was enveloped in a kind of incompetence that I fear may be a national characteristic. Six years before the accident, officials in the Department of Transport and the Port of London Authority, were were pretty sure that a serious disaster would occur. The only question in their minds was the date - would it be this year, next year, when?

Fearing catastrophe, however, they were unable to prevent it. On Friday, John Prescott, the Secretary of State, apologised in the House of Commons "unreservedly for the past failings of the department". Of course the public servants responsible have long since retired on inflation-proof pensions. Nothing will disturb their rest. The Metropolitan Police apparently had no specific contingency plans for dealing with a major disaster on the river,.

After the disaster, the state was equally incompetent in dealing with the consequences. Its duty towards the grieving relatives and friends was to establish the facts, identify the causes and punish any breaches of the law. Its duty to the nation was to take steps to prevent a repetition.

As to the first, think what happened. A blundering coroner unnecessarily authorised the cutting-off of the hands of 25 of the victim's bodies to aid identification when dental records would have sufficed. Great has been the anguish of the relatives and friends in learning of this barbarism. Has anybody looked at coroners lately? Are they just made insensitive? Do they get any training during their careers? Does anybody supervise them?

Years were wasted by futile litigation. The Bowbelle's skipper was twice acquitted of failing to maintain a proper lookout, although the public inquiry states without reservation that the basic cause of the collision was "poor lookout on both vessels". A manslaughter case against the owners of the Bowbelle and four of its directors was dismissed.

Yet the report states that the owners of the Bowbelle "must bear their share of the responsibility for the collision for failing properly to instruct their masters and crews and for failing thereafter to monitor them". And the Secretary of State has announced that he will be asking the director of public prosecutions to consider whether the managers and owners of the Bowbelle should face fresh criminal charges.

As to making sure that nothing like the Bowbelle/Marchioness disaster ever happens again, we now learn, 11 years later, that a bill "should be submitted to Parliament in the near future". Let us assume that ministers can bring themselves to agree on the form of a bill, that it comes before Parliament in the 2001-2 session, that a date no longer than a year after the royal assent is set for the coming into force of its provisions; then, by golly, the new powers might be available by mid-2003. At best, then, the time lapse would be 14 years after the sinking of the Marchioness or 20 years after government officials first realised that changes were necessary. For we now know that Department of Transport officials had even predicted that such a tragedy might take place, after the Bowbelle struck a passenger vessel called the Pride of Greenwich in 1983.

Now turn to the skipper of the Bowbelle. Here we find another national characteristic. Captain Douglas Henderson had been drinking heavily. He imbibed about six pints of lager at five different pubs in the afternoon. He returned inebriated to the vessel at around 6pm, although by the time his ship was under way, several hours later, the effects of the alcohol had probably vanished. Of another crew member it is said that his capacities were impaired when he first returned to duty through the consumption of alcohol and sleep deprivation.

What is it about us British that we drink so heavily? Evidence that the nation has a drink problem turns up almost every day. Is it fanciful to suggest that this sometimes has a connection with work? England's footballers, for instance, know that they are simply not as professional as their Continental counterparts, so they banish their nagging feeling of incompetence by heavy drinking. Sven Goran Eriksson, their new Swedish coach, has suggested they drink less and behave more professionally. There should be no need to dwell on the behaviour of some football fans in this context.

Captain Henderson didn't have sufficient skills of seamanship to provide any help in rescuing the passengers of the Marchioness. He didn't broadcast a Mayday call, he didn't deploy his life buoys or life-raft. He did n0t sound the general alarm to alert the ship's crew. More competent operators would have anchored so as to provide better assistance or would have launched a lifeboat but that was beyond him.

But just before this miserable tale plunges us into gloom, consider one more group of people, the relatives and friends. They have been magnificent. Unacquainted with each other until the morrow of the disaster, knowing little if anything about the management of vessels on the river Thames, never before having dealt with river police, inquests, ship owners and managers, civil servants, they nevertheless maintained a steady pressure upon all those involved and this weekend obtained what they wanted most of all, a fair account and a just apportionment of blame. They have been waiting too long.