LONDON — A High Court justice ruled today that "staggering complacency" and top-to-bottom "disease of sloppiness" by owners of the Herald of Free Enterprise led to the ferry disaster that killed nearly 200 people in March.
Justice Barry Sheen singled out three crew members--Capt. David Lewry, 1st Officer Leslie Sabel and Assistant Bosun Mark Stanley--for special blame in the tragedy of the ferry Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized off Zeebrugge, Belgium.
But the justice leveled a broad accusation of negligence at the ferry's owners, Townsend Thoresen, whom he accused of "staggering complacency," and he said that "from top to bottom, it was riddled with the disease of sloppiness."
Sheen's rulings came at the end of a three-month marine inquiry that was described as the swiftest to be convened in Britain since the White Star liner Titanic sank after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic 75 years ago.
'All Possible Speed'
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, appearing on BBC television minutes later, said that she had not seen the justice's full report but that "if there is anything we can do, or we're asked to do, we will endeavor to do it with all possible speed."
"The important thing is that whatever the judge has said, whatever measures he has addressed to the various parties, . . . we must do it as soon as we can. It's urgent," she said. "People's confidence in (ferries) must be restored."
The huge cargo doors of the Herald of Free Enterprise had inadvertently been left open as the vessel slipped out of Zeebrugge harbor on the night of March 6 en route to Dover, England.
With water pouring onto its car and truck decks at the rate of 11,000 gallons a second, the ferry lost stability, listed, then capsized in less than one minute, taking at least 188 persons to their deaths.
The captain, Sheen said, was guilty of failing to make sure the doors were properly shut, and his first officer was negligent in failing to check that this was done before he himself left the car deck.
In delivering his verdict, the justice ordered Lewry's master certificate suspended for at least one year and Sabel's for two years, starting from today.
Sheen left it to Townsend Thoresen to come up with a proper punishment for Stanley, who was supposed to have closed the doors but who instead was asleep in his cabin when the Herald of Free Enterprise left Zeebrugge.
"It was my responsibility to shut the doors, and I didn't," the assistant bosun testified during the hearing.
On BBC-TV today, Stanley said that "as soon as (the ferry) started rolling, I knew the doors were open." Despite initial speculation that the vessel had perhaps struck a rock or a jetty, "it wasn't a glimmer of hope to me, because I knew what had happened," he said.
"I was hoping everyone would get off," Stanley said, near tears. "I carry the guilt. I knew it was my responsibility to shut the doors, and I didn't shut the doors. It's as simple as that."