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Herald of Free Enterprise

Herald of Free Enterprise
Accident date
Accident area
Port of Zeebrugge
Spill area
Cause of spill
Quantity transported
46.6 tonnes of dangerous chemicals: 19.9 tonnes of tribasic lead sulphate + 5.5 tonnes of toluene di-isocyanate + 7.8 tonnes of paint wastes + 5 tonnes of hydroquinone + 5 tonnes of leather paint + 400 kg of diluted cyanide solutions + 260 kg of liquefied and pressurized gases
Nature of pollutant
over 100 different dangerous chemicals including : tribasic lead sulphate, toluene di-isocyanate, paint wastes, hydroquinone, leather paint, diluted cyanide solutions, 13 types of liquefied and pressurized gases (such as chlorine trifluoride, hydrogen bromide …)
Built date
Schichau Unterweser, Bremerhaven, Germany
131.91 m
22.19 m
5.72 m
Compañía Naviera S.A., Athens, Greece
Townsend Thoresen, Great Britain

On 6 March 1987, the British car ferry Herald of Free Enterprise was leaving the port of Zeebrugge (Belgium) while the doors were still open due to an officer’s carelessness. Water rushed inside the ship with a flow rate of 200 tonnes per minute. Destabilized by the volume of water and by the sliding of vehicles on her left side, the ferry capsized and sank 10 m deep near the port.

Operations were carried out to rescue the crew and the passengers. The other priority was to recover the cargo which was made up of 46.6 tonnes of various dangerous chemicals.

In this shipwrecking, about 200 people were drowned, and several containers, drums and bottles of chemicals were lost at sea. It remained difficult to assess the environmental hazard the dangerous cargo constituted, because so little was known of the toxicity of most of the chemicals for marine organisms. Moreover, an important factor to take into consideration was the fact that once released into the marine environment many chemicals react or degrade to form potentially toxic substances.

Firstly, a simplified scenario was used to quickly determine the extent of the sea area in which concentrations considered lethal for marine organisms could be reached. Then, environmental monitoring was performed in order to ensure the safety of personnel involved in operations and also to assess the extent and impact of a possible spill in the marine environment.

Refloating the ferry took 52 days and represented a major technical achievement. Although only half of the dangerous cargo was recovered, environmental damage was kept to a minimum.


- Ministère de la Santé publique et de l’Environnement, 1987, Herald of Free Enterprise incident, 6 March 1987, Sixteenth meeting of the working group on operational, technical and scientific questions concerning counter pollution activities
- JACQUES T. G., 1990, The Herald of Free Enterprise accident: the environmental perspective, Oil & Chemical Pollution, 6, 55-68
- ROUX-DUFORT C., 1999, Le naufrage du car-ferry « Herald of Free Enterprise” – Une crise à double visage, Annales des mines, 90-100

Last update on 30/11/2009

External links

Incident report available on the website Rempec

Diisocyanate de toluène, Fiche Internationale de Sécurité Chimique

Hydroquinone, Fiche Internationale de Sécurité Chimique

Report of the MAIB (Maritime Accident Investigation Branch)

CIIMAR database:  fate and weathering of Hazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) involved

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