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'There were dead bodies everywhere' SURVIVOR REMEMBERS ZEEBRUGGE 21 YEARS ON Thursday marks the 21st anniversary of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster which claimed 193 lives. Lawson Fisher, from Stourbridge, West Midlands, and his six friends survived the icy waters. He tells FIONNUALA BOURKE about his experience.

LAWSON Fisher was just 18 when he set off for a day trip to Belgium with six pals.

The group had spotted a cheap ferry deal to travel from Dover to the port of Zeebrugge for just pounds 1.

Little did they know that their bargain trip on the Herald of Free Enterprise would turn into the most terrifying experience of their lives.

A total of 193 people died after the ferry capsized as it attempted to sail with its bow doors open on March 6, 1987.

A public inquiry identified a "disease of sloppiness" and negligence at every level of the Townsend Thoresen company which ran the crossing, following the disaster.

Most damning of all, it was revealed a crew member responsible for shutting the bow doors had been asleep when the ship set sail.

Panic Lawson still remembers the screams of panic as the sloshing, icy waters flooded into the vessel pulling it down, drowning its passengers.

The dad-of-one recalled: "We had enjoyed a great day out in Belgium, playing pool and visiting the local sites with the lads.

"We were on the way back, about a mile away from the docks, when all hell broke loose.

"I was in the bar playing pool with a few of my friends when the boat just tipped over. It was around 6pm and it was pitch dark as all the lights went off.

"It wasn't a very rough sea but it was as though the momentum from all the water that had seeped in from the open bow doors had caused it to capsize.

"People standing on one side of the room literally just fell the whole width to the other side.

"I remember hearing the duty free shop go. There was an almighty crash as all the bottles were flung off the shelves.

"I lost contact with all my friends. But I was a fit young lad at the time and my instinct for survival just kicked in."

As the ferry began to sink, terrible tragedies began to unfold in the darkness.

Lawson said: "There were dead bodies everywhere. Others were struggling to get past hordes of life jackets that were bobbing around, stopping people from getting out.

"I felt people grabbing at my legs. I turned to help, but couldn't's see where they were.

"When I eventually clambered outside, I helped pull some people through the port holes. Eventually someone put me onto a tug and I was taken ashore.

Land "I was the first one to land and panicked when I couldn't see the rest of the lads, but slowly we all found each other.

"We were the lucky ones. We were the biggest group to survive."

Lawson had travelled with Ian Moore, Andrew Dingley, Alan Cartwright, all 18, Andy Bridge, 19, Ian Wood, 21 and his 18 year-old brother Nick.

He now runs his own floor laying business, Mayfair Floors Ltd, but says the experience all those years ago continues to haunt him.

Lawson said: "I rang my parents when I got ashore, but they hadn't got a clue what was going on or that I had come so close to death.

"At first my dad thought my car had broken down. When they eventually realised what had happened they were distraught.

"I will think about all those who died on Thursday and remember how lucky I am.

"I don't like travelling since that night - particularly flying.

It's the idea of not being in control. When you're driving a car you are in control, but you're not if you fly or travel by boat."

Six months after the disaster, a verdict of unlawful killing on a selected four victims was returned by an inquest jury.

In September 1990, an Old Bailey trial began with eight defendants, including the ferry company and three former directors, facing manslaughter charges.

One month later the case collapsed after the judge directed the jury to acquit the defendants.

fionnualabourke@mrn.co.uk

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TRAGEDY: 193 people died when Herald of Free Enterprise capsized in 1987 THEN & NOW: survivor Lawson Fisher
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Mar 2, 2008
Words:680
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