Ferry disaster sparks push for boat safety

The need to restore confidence in travel across the English Channel 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 more than 130 lives after an almost 8,000-ton, British-owned ferry, bound for Dover, capsized within half a mile of leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on March 6, has stunned the maritime world.

The accident took place so fast 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 world's busiest waterways. Bookings are picking up dramatically as summer nears.

The government, which has ordered an official inquiry, has made safety the first priority.

Within minutes of the March 9 statement to the House of Commons by the transport secretary, John Moore, new safety regulations were put into action to prevent a reoccurrence of the Zeebrugge tragedy.

Although the findings of the inquiry will not be known for some time, it is now generally recognized that the ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise, capsized after taking on massive amounts of water that rushed through open bow doors. Seamen had apparently been unable to close the doors at sea.

Under the new safety guidelines, all openings in the hull and superstructure must be closed before a ferry proceeds to sea. In the case of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the doors, which are well above the waterline, were left open to remove exhaust fumes. This breaks regulations.

In addition, Mr. Moore saw to it that inspectors from his department immediately began the processs of boarding all 40 roll-on, roll-off ferries to make sure all loading door mechanisms were working. This entails closing the outer bow doors so they form a watertight seal. A green light will flash only after the inner doors are closed and all pins are in place.

The transport secretary is also advising owners to install warning lights that will signal officers on the bridge when the bow doors are closed.

The tragedy is expected to renew flagging interest in the proposed rail-only channel link between France and England.

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