Tuesday 12 December 2017

Councillor recalls day he rescued 30 on stricken ferry

David Looby

WEXFORD county councillor Larry O'Brien's rescue of 30 passengers onboard the ill-fated Herald of Free Enterprise ferry in 1987 is to feature in a BBC documentary.

The Campile man travelled to England earlier this month to be interviewed about his role in saving so many lives when the ferry started dramatically capsized in a matter of seconds.

On Friday, March 6, 1987, the MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized as it set sail from Zeebrugge, Belgium, on its way to Dover with the bow doors still open. The disaster claimed the lives of around 200 people.

Cllr O'Brien was one of 454 passengers and 80 crew on board the vessel. As the 7,950-tonne vessel left Zeebrugge, tragedy struck – its bow doors had been left open and seawater flooded in.

The Fine Gael councillor – who was working as a truck driver at the time – wasn't supposed to be on the ill-fated ferry but having finished a five-week shift on the continent he got a last-minute call from his employers to bring a load home. And an unexpected delay meant he ended up on the Herald of Free Enterprise.

'My boss called me to say a load was stuck in Holland and my help was needed to get it home. I agreed to travel from Rosslare the next morning and arrived in Holland on the morning of March 6. Having secured the load to bring back to Ireland I received another call. The company had another truck in England which was involved in an accident and they were looking for a back panel for a Mercedes so that held me up for about three hours. That delay led to me taking a place on board the Herald of Free Enterprise in Zeebrugge,' he said in an interview on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

He vividly remembers the terror of it swaying and quickly capsizing.

'I'll never forget it – it'd be in your mind all the time really. I wouldn't even have to blink my eyes and I could think about it. I went to one of the ship's restaurants but within minutes the ship began to sway heavily to either side: It was no more than 15 minutes out and it felt more severe than any normal sway. You could hear the delph breaking in the kitchen and bar which was something I had never heard before even in severe bad weather. The boat righted itself one more time before swaying completely over and capsizing. There was no warning. It all happened in around eight seconds at the most.'

He said he will never forget the loss of life of children and families on the vessel. 'The kids – that's something which will probably never go out of my mind. There were lots of kids and families on it for that trip. The emergency lights came on and then went off again straight away. Everything went absolutely silent – there wasn't a sound to be heard except the water gushing in.'

Cllr O'Brien, who helped aroud 30 people escape the vessel on the day, said he was invited over to England for three days by the BBC to recall his memories of that fateful day.

'They are doing a documentary about it and I was invited over to Dover and the Memorial Garden in memory of the victims of the disaster. They are cutting it and editing it at the moment so I'm not sure when it will be aired.'

Cllr O'Brien is one of a number of survivors to be interviewed for the programme.

Gorey Guardian

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