The 30th anniversary of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster has brought back some vivid memories. As a young reporter on the Kent Evening Post I was sent to cover the inquest into the deaths of the 193 victims: passengers and crew from the Herald of Free Enterprise. It took place at the town hall in Dover seven months after the accident. By that stage it was known that it was caused by a systematic failure of the ferry company – Townsend Car Ferries Limited – as well as members of the crew including the captain, chief officer and assistant bosun. He was asleep in his cabin instead of making sure the bow doors were shut.
I remember the chamber in which the Zeebrugge inquests took place. It was dark, cold and quite intimidating. As well as the stories of tragedy and heroism, I also remember how – understandably – some of the first witnesses became extremely distressed as they gave their evidence. So, no doubt with the best intentions, a court official decided to place a big box of tissues on the otherwise empty and large table where the witnesses sat. It struck me at the time that this told the survivor or relative that, even if they had arrived prepared and composed, they were going to become upset. I am sure the witnesses did not give it a second thought, but that image of that box of tissues has stayed with me ever since.