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Zeebrugge ferry disaster 30 years on: 'I've no idea how I survived'
This Monday marks 30 years since the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, one of Europe's worst-ever ferry disasters. In just 90 seconds the ship, carrying 459 passengers, capsized just outside the port of Zeebrugge in the icy North Sea. The loss of life was immense - 193 people died, many drowned or died of hypothermia.
Although many years have passed since that terrible night of 6 March 1987, survivor Gillian Lashbrooke, now 46, remembers the terrifying events in vivid detail. Her mother, stepfather and uncle all perished in the accident. Two stepbrothers survived.
Looking back, Gillian marvels at how she escaped with her life, having been knocked unconscious twice before she plunged into treacherous seas. She then struggled for more than half an hour to keep afloat, even vainly attempting to begin the two-mile swim to shore before exhaustion forced her back to the stricken vessel.
Gillian, then 16, clung to the side of the ferry and helped hold a two-year-old girl aloft out of the deadly cold water – but is haunted to this day by not knowing if the little girl was rescued.
"One of my most vivid memories after I had been rescued was sitting in a lifeboat and seeing the huge outline of the Herald of Free Enterprise lying on its side," says Gillian, from Liverpool in the UK.
"I’ve no idea how I escaped with my life but the survival instinct is a powerful thing. Until you are faced with that situation you don’t realise how overwhelming the feeling is to want to live. All I was focused on was seeing my family again, especially my mum. But that wasn’t to be,” she says quietly.
Like many of the passengers on board, her family were on a day trip to Zeebrugge and had arrived on an early morning ferry crossing from Dover.
"I don’t remember much about the place, other than the weather was poor, it was raining and freezing cold," says Gillian, who went with her mum, Eileen, stepdad Keith, uncle David and two of her four stepbrothers, Mark and Colin.
"We drove back to the port in our van for 17.00. The boat was due to leave an hour later. After we boarded, we went in different directions. The last time I saw them, my stepdad was in duty free, the boys were heading to the cinema room and mum and uncle David were sitting in the lounge. Mum gave me some money for something to eat and I said: 'I’ll see you in a minute'."
'Awful sounds still haunt me today'
Gillian wanted to look outside and went on to the top deck - a decision that ultimately saved her life. "I was right at the front of the ferry, leaning on the white railings. We'd been moving for a few minutes when something caught my eye - I could see the boat going down into the water. I thought I was imagining it."
She felt a huge jolt and was thrown backwards into a cabin wall, knocking her unconscious. Moments later she woke and struggled to her feet but was thrown down and banged her head as the ship lurched violently again, knocking her out for a second time.
"I’m not sure what woke me the second time but when I came round after what must have only been a couple of minutes there were awful sounds which still haunt me today," she recalls. "There was a terrible creaking and groaning of metal, the lights went out and people were screaming in the darkness in sheer terror, shouting for help.
"Everything was the wrong way round - I was lying across some of the chairs that were fixed to the deck. I didn’t realise the ship was on its side until I saw the chairs were vertical, they’d almost become a ladder. Above me, I could see the doors leading back into the ship and wanted to get inside to see my family – but I couldn’t get over the chairs."
The sea rose rapidly around her - at first ankle deep, then up to her waist. The frigid water took her breath away. "I was so scared. My hands were already numb with cold and the bangs to my head left me feeling sick and confused.
"Within five minutes my survival instinct kicked in. I knew I had to get off the boat because I thought it would carry on sinking and drag me down. I’ve always been a strong swimmer - Mum taught me from an early age - and though it sounds crazy I thought I could swim to shore."
Frightened, concussed and shivering, Gillian leapt into the waves - fully clothed in a thick denim jacket, long denim skirt and boots - without realising she was in fact two miles off land.
"When I jumped in I went a long way below the surface and really struggled to get back to the surface and gasp for air. The water was freezing and the waves were much bigger than I’d expected. The current was so strong I could barely move."
'People screaming and crying'
Panicking, she realised she had to turn back and cling onto the ship for survival. "I swam back where the decks had formed a kind of alley filled with water and saw a terrified woman holding a little girl who looked about two. I found something shaped like a hook and hooked the back of my skirt onto it to stop me going under the water. Then I held my arms up to help keep the girl out of the water.
"The woman told me it wasn't her daughter, she'd just grabbed the child as she escaped. It was so sad. I could still hear the faint sound of people screaming and crying."
Between them, they spent the next half hour fully immersed in the sea as they held the girl above them to save her life. "I kept slipping under the waves but the thing that kept me going was wanting to know if Mum was still alive," says Gillian. "I kept thinking about her."
Hearing a rescue helicopter hovering above, Gillian realised they would never be found as they were underneath a section of the deck. Despite suffering hypothermia, she swam out into the sea again in a bid to get help.
"I was exhausted and frozen and wasn’t sure I’d make it. As I swam off the woman shouted: 'Gillian, please don’t leave us, help us' but I had to do it or we’d never get rescued."
Two minutes later, as she began sinking below the waves, a spotlight shone in her eyes and she heard shouts nearby. "I heard someone say 'over here' and knew I'd survived. Just knowing I was going to live was an amazing feeling, a feeling I could never match ever since. As they pulled me on to the boat I lost all the feeling in my body. That's when the hypothermia really set in. They rubbed me with towels to create warmth.
"I remember saying: 'There’s a woman and a child in there, please save them' but I don’t know what happened to them - it still haunts me."
Gillian was taken to a nearby rescue boat where she was reunited with her stepbrother Mark. "It was such a relief to see him. The first thing I said was: 'Where’s mum, where’s everyone else?' but he didn't know."
They were separated again once back on shore as Gillian was rushed to hospital, where she spent an agonising night alone being treated for hypothermia.
"I kept thinking it was a nightmare and I'd wake up," she recalls. "I couldn't sleep. I still felt chilled to the bone, I was physically sick and had head injuries where I bashed the side of my face. The amount of bruising on my body was incredible."
'It felt like we were just another number on a list'
The next day a nurse told Gillian she was being taken to an army base with other survivors and there had a tearful reunion with Mark and her other stepbrother Colin. But there was no news about their parents or uncle David – whose body was washed up on a beach a month after the tragedy.
The following morning, the three teenagers were taken to a building beside a gym, which unknown to them was being used as a temporary mortuary for victims of the disaster.
"There were other survivors there sat around tables. A woman sat down at our table with a clipboard. She asked who we were and we told her our names. She looked up and said: 'You do know your parents are dead, don’t you?' Then she said: 'Who do you think will take this the worst out of all of you?' and we all said 'me' at the same time. I'll never forget that. It seemed so cold, like we were just another number on a list that she had to attend to."
Agonisingly, the teenagers were then told they had to identify the bodies. "We walked in and I recoiled. There were rows and rows of bodies, faces exposed. We saw my stepfather pretty much straight away. By then I couldn’t move, I was crying uncontrollably, so my brothers were taken around. There must have been 100 bodies there, with other survivors identifying their loved ones at the same time as us. I heard Mark shout over: 'We've found your mum'. That was a very bad moment.
"They wanted to lead us away and I said: 'No, I want to see her.' I walked past rows of bodies. I will never forget the faces, especially those of the children. Then I saw Mum. I just wanted to hug her but the mortuary staff wouldn't let me. I simply touched her arm and said: 'I love you mum. Goodbye mum.'"
In shock, the teenagers were led out only to be callously informed that a ferry would take them back to England, sending Gillian into panic. At the last minute, a plane was organised. Back home, the youngsters were met by elder stepbrothers Paul and Ian, and their grieving family - who at first had feared Gillian, Mark and Colin had also died.
"It still felt like a bad dream, the shock was unbelievable," says Gillian. "I kept thinking: what’s going to happen now? We’ve got no parents." Ian was made guardian of his siblings and Gillian quickly found herself in the role of homemaker - despite still being at school.
"I felt I had to take over Mum's position and look after everyone, I felt like that was what she would have wanted me to do. I learned to cook and did the washing, ironing and tidying.
"I'd gone back to school two weeks after the disaster, just for a bit of normality. I took my O-levels a few weeks later but could barely concentrate. I couldn't revise as there was so much going on in my head. It was strange at school as no one mentioned what'd happened to me in case they hurt me, but I really wanted to talk about it."
'Nothing can compare to that terrible day'
Gillian was never offered counselling or therapy despite the terrible trauma she had suffered. However, within weeks of the accident, came a glimmer of hope. Her long lost dad Alan - who separated from her mum when she was four - got in touch after Gillian made an appeal.
"I'd always planned to try to find him when I was older," she says. "It should have been the happy reunion I'd always imagined but it was under very different circumstances. I felt so relieved to see him after all those years - to feel fatherly arms around me, I felt so much comfort."
Aged 17, Gillian met her now ex-husband Richard, a friend of one of her brothers. "He was one of the first people I talked openly with about Zeebrugge. In fact, we sort of bonded over it. I had been through so much, I knew by the way he reacted to what I was saying that he was a good person, he gave me strength."
The couple - who split up nine years ago but are still good friends - have two sons, James, 23 and 21-year-old Daniel. Gillian admits that after experiencing such trauma she was a very protective mum, and insisted the boys learned to swim from a very early age. She still swims four times a week but admits she has always been terrified of boats and only went on the Liverpool ferry for the first time a few years ago. “I still get flashbacks,” she says.
Referring to the investigation that followed the Zeebrugge disaster - which revealed that three crew members had failed to close the bow doors, leading to a catastrophic flooding of the car deck - Gillian, who works in a nursing home, says it is hard not to feel angry.
"I feel I’ve been robbed of my loved ones. Through no fault of their own they were taken away – it was not a natural disaster, there were mistakes made. Mum should have seen me grow up, should have seen my boys become men. But being angry won't bring her back.
"The 30th anniversary will be hard. I'll visit Mum's grave as I always do. I still talk to her most days, which is a great comfort.
"Looking back, I think surviving that day made me a stronger person. When I’ve had trials and tribulations in life, that survival instinct has kicked in again. If I can get through that I can get through anything. Nothing can compare to that terrible day."