Channel safety. Ferry capsizing renews concern over safeguards. Tragedy may generate new interest in Channel rail link

The need to restore confidence in cross-channel travel has become paramount in the wake of Britain's most serious peacetime maritime tragedy since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. The loss of 135 lives after an 8,000-ton ferry, bound for the English port of Dover, had capsized within half a mile of leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge Friday night, has stunned the maritime world.

While there is relief that as many as 408 survived the ordeal of being pitched into icy seas at night, there is dismay that the ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise, equipped with the latest technology, could have capsized within a minute of taking on massive amounts of water. The accident took place so quickly that there was no time to issue an SOS, lower the lifeboats, or even, in some cases, don lifejackets.

The Channel is one of the busiest in the world, and it's from now on that bookings will start picking up rapidly as summer approaches.

Although crossing by ferry is generally regarded as a routinely safe journey, undertaken by millions of passengers each year, earlier misgivings about safety are now beginning to surface. One report shows that in previous accidents around the globe, 60 percent of roll-on, roll-off ships, like the Herald of Free Enterprise, sank within 10 minutes.

The great appeal of such ships is that both tourists and truck drivers can drive their vehicles on in one port, and then drive off at the next port. Yet the high sides of the ships have now become targets for safety critics. They argue that the ships become top heavy which makes them more liable to overturn. Designers of the roll-on, roll-off ship deny this. They say the ship is quite safe provided adequate safeguards are taken.

Several eyewitnesses said the vehicles were not lashed together, which caused them to shift and move when the ship lost its balance.

One supposition frequently cited is that the bow doors were still open when the ferry put out to sea. Water was then believed to have poured through those doors. It is not uncommon for seamen on these ferries to delay closing the bow doors, which are well above the waterline, to get rid of exhaust fumes. This practice, however, is against regulations.

The tragedy is expected to renew interest in the proposed rail-only Channel link between France and England. Reuters reported Sunday:

The chairman of Townsend Thoresen, the company operating the ferry, said that recovering the remaining 84 bodies may take at least several more weeks to complete.

Port officials said Sunday that 24 hours after the last three known survivors were winched to safety, hope had been virtually abandoned of finding anyone else alive. At press time, divers had recovered seven more bodies.

Company chairman Peter Ford said that 18 drums, possibly containing poison, had escaped from the ship and had not all been found.

The port officials said a huge net was secured over the ferry's gaping bow doors to prevent any dangerous cargo from escaping after two barrels were found adrift in the sea.

Three separate investigations - one Belgian, one British, and one by the ship's owners - were under way Sunday. And experts were trying to figure out what went wrong. English Channel: world's busiest sea lane

The English Channel waters, with some 250 crossings a day, are the busiest sea lanes in the world. Some 23 million passengers and 2.5 million cars make the trip by ferry and hovercraft between Britain and the Continent every year.

The 433-foot-long Herald of Free Enterprise, which capsized Friday, could carry 1,300 passengers on three decks and 350 cars and trucks on two lower open decks. It was built by a West German firm in 1980.

The ferry's owner, Britain's Townsend Thoresen company, is expected to bring into service two ``super ferries'' this summer. Carrying 2,000 passengers each, they will cross between Dover and Calais.

In the past five years there have been five major accidents involving passenger ferries. In the worst, six people were killed after two ferries collided off England's east coast in 1982.

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