MS Herald of Free Enterprise was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferry which capsized moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on the night of 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew.
The modern 8-deck car and passenger ferry, owned by Townsend Thoresen, had been designed for rapid loading and unloading on the competitive cross-channel route, and there were no watertight compartments. When the ship left harbour with its bow-door open, the sea immediately flooded the decks, and within minutes it was lying on its side in shallow water.
The ship left her berth in Zeebrugge inner harbour at 18:05 (GMT) with a crew of 80 and carrying 459 passengers, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 trucks. She passed the outer mole at 18:24 and capsized about four minutes later.
When the ferry reached 18.9 knots (35.0 km/h; 21.7 mph) 90 seconds after leaving the harbour, water began to enter the car deck in large quantities. The resulting free surface effect destroyed her stability.
In a matter of seconds, the ship began to list 30 degrees to port. The ship briefly righted herself before listing to port once more, this time capsizing. The entire event took place within 90 seconds. The water quickly reached the ship's electrical systems, destroying both main and emergency power and leaving the ship in darkness
The ship ended on her side half-submerged in shallow water 1 kilometre (0.5 nmi; 0.6 mi) from the shore. Only a fortuitous turn to starboard in her last moments, and then capsizing on a sandbar, prevented the ship from sinking entirely in much deeper water.
Crew aboard a nearby dredger noticed Herald of Free Enterprise's lights disappear, and notified the port authorities. The alarm was raised at 19:37 local time (18:37 British time). Rescue helicopters were quickly dispatched, shortly followed by assistance from the Belgian Navy, who were undertaking an exercise within the area. Wolfgang Schröder (de), the German captain of a nearby ferry, was commended by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and received a medal from King Baudouin of Belgium for his heroic efforts in rescuing passengers.
The disaster resulted in the deaths of 193 people. Many of those on board had taken advantage of a promotion in The Sun newspaper offering cheap trips to the continent. Most of the victims were trapped inside the ship and succumbed to hypothermia because of the frigid water. The rescue efforts of the Belgian Navy limited the death toll. Recoverable bodies were removed in the days following the accident. During the rescue the tide started to rise and the rescue team was forced to stop all efforts until morning. The last of the people left on board died of hypothermia.