The herald of disaster, or why you should welcome regulations

Here’s a question for which the answer will turn out to be important. You want to buy a large amount of strengthened glass for a ship’s portholes. Should you buy toughened, or laminated?

Both will work pretty well. offers laminated at £35 per square metre for 6mm glass; for toughened, it’s £35.10. That’s it, then, isn’t it? You’re going to buy laminated, to save money, right?

Now read on.

The Herald of Free Enterprise on the day after its capsize in March 1987. Photo: AFP.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, at 1805 on March 6 1987, the cross-channel ferry Herald of Free Enterprise rolled over onto its port side and sank just outside Zeebrugge harbour. The capsize took just 90 seconds as 13,601 tonnes of metal succumbed to the laws of physics as colossal amounts of seawater poured in through the bow [front] doors, which had been left open as the ship set sail. Cars and trucks on the vehicle deck shifted to one side (which side was entirely chance). The unbalanced ship keeled over in the gathering darkness.

In those moments and the hours that followed, 193 people died, out of 459 passengers and 80 crew. Imagine being inside, in the cafeteria or on stairs or walking along a corridor or being in a cabin as this happened. You’d have no warning; all you’d know is that suddenly the floor has become a wall, and you’re falling. (Read one survivor’s account, or those of multiple people involved.) It’s quite possible some people died in the first seconds in the cafeteria as they fell and hit the furniture. Many more survived that, but then died from hypothermia after spending hours immersed in freezing water, unable to extricate themselves from beneath others or debris.

There were acts of heroism, and its opposite. Andrew Parker made himself into a human bridge across a gap and told people to walk across him. When he got to an exit, where many other people were gathered, there was a rope hanging down leading up to the exit — and hanging down over a deep shaft (which until the capsize had been a corridor) to dark, cold water. Two drunk men pushed ahead and tried to climb up the rope. They fell off to their doom.

The catastrophe is portrayed in a BBC radio drama, “Herald of Disaster” by Stephen Phelps. I recommend it. It’s pretty harrowing. But it also points to the reasons why it happened.

Human error, and more

The principal reason: the assistant bosun, who was meant to shut the bow doors, was asleep in a cabin upstairs. The next reason why: the person who was meant to be in charge of the assistant bosun thought he saw someone who looked like him arrive on the car deck to close the doors, but didn’t check.

The next reason: the captain — who is in ultimate charge of the ship — set sail without knowing whether the bow doors were open or shut. Despite there being lots of information displayed on the bridge, there was no indicator light which would tell the captain whether the bow and rear doors were open or closed.

Roll-on roll-off ferries — ro-ros, in the lingo — let cars and trucks drive on and directly off at the other end of the journey. They have stern and bow doors. You’d think that the knowledge that without having both sets of doors shut you were liable to sink, and that their status wasn’t visible from the bridge, would make the company that owned them eager to take every sensible action against that possibility. But no.

The lack of door indicator lights had been noted: a memo written by one of the ships’ captains, circulated in 1985 within the company, suggested there should be exactly such an indicator to prevent against the error of setting sail with the doors open — which, it turned out at the inquiry held into the accident, had happened before, just without such disastrous consequences. In October 1983 the assistant bosun on the Pride of Free Enterprise, another Townsend Thoresen roll-on roll-off cross-Channel ferry, had fallen asleep; the bow and stern doors had been open leaving Dover. It turned out, the inquiry found, that this had happened five times before. People had been lucky. But luck runs out.

You might also notice that “free enterprise” appears a lot on the Townsend Thoresen ships. It did, in variants: Herald, Pride, Spirit, all of free enterprise. You could infer plenty about the company from that. These ro-ro ferries were rushing back and forth across the Channel, their captains alert to every lost minute, knowing that running late could lead to reprimands.

The report of the rapidly convened inquiry into the capsize is eye-opening. It’s worth reading, but what I really want to pull out is what it tells us about the necessity for regulation.

The inquiry pulls out all sorts of nautical detail that would make sense only to ships’ captains. (Ballast tanks, trim, jetty heights, and much more.) It also revealed that there was a culture within Townsend Thoresen of ignoring the good advice that came from captains and crew members if it would cost money. The spirit of free enterprise as practised by the company seemed to mean“don’t get in the way of our profit”. There wasn’t even a proper manifest — list of people on board — because it took too long to count the people in the cars coming on board, and that held up departure, and later departure meant less profit.

Privatisation and enterprise

That was certainly the impression that I remember getting after seeing the pictures of the ship lying on its side in the sea. Certain moments can, I think, crystallise your political views; for me, a lot of what I thought about corporate behaviour was shaped by the behaviour of Townsend Thoresen. In March 1987, the UK was in the midst of the revolution triggered by Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation agenda; British Telecom, formerly nationally owned, had been sold off in 1984, as the first big and noticeable one; British Gas had gone towards the end of 1986. The national mood was one of watchfulness: how would privatisation (and “free enterprise”) change the way these businesses behaved?

As the calamity, and deaths, showed, there were limits to what free enterprise could do for you — and what it was prepared to do for you, which could amount to “not much, if it involves effort and cost”.

Regulation and deregulation

What’s the answer? It’s obvious: regulation. You need regulations to make companies behave in ways that will maximise the benefit of the people who might be affected by their services — which doesn’t necessarily include their customers; people can be poisoned by companies’ output (ask residents in Bhopal).

That’s because companies generally do not have an incentive to consider those people. Even their customers, sometimes. If your response is “ah, but if a company wrongs you, you can sue them”, I’ll remind you that you can’t sue to get someone’s life back. (Here’s a proper reminder of that.)

The vanity of the bonfires

Even so quite a few people — generally right-wing people, I generally notice — don’t like regulations. There are regular calls for “a bonfire of red tape”; conservatives (with a small c) cheer the idea of not having so many “rules and regulations” to follow. Leaving the European Union will mean “fewer regulations!”, which some see as a cause for celebration. Regulations make a lovely political football, because they don’t seem to enable anything. They seem to hold things back, and politicians love to be the ones making things freer.

That sort of thinking, however convenient, is dangerous.

Rules and regulations tend to exist for a reason. Go back to that question about the glass at the top of this piece. Laminated is cheaper, right? But toughened saves lives. As the inquiry found, the fact that the portholes had been made of toughened glass meant that when the ship turned over, they could be shattered, providing escape routes. You can’t do that with laminated glass (like a windscreen). Many more people would have died if the ship’s portholes had been made of laminated glass.

So you’d hope (as the inquiry panel did) that it would become mandatory to use toughened glass in ro-ro and other ships. Oh no, a new regulation! A costlier regulation! But you’d be glad of it if you were Andrew Parker, for example.

Here are some of the other recommendations made by the inquiry. Some of these will strike you as obvious; some not.

• Indicator lights were required on the bridge to indicate whether the bow doors were open. (As noted, this had been recommended by captains, and summarily rejected by managers.)

• CCTV was “strongly recommended” for the vehicle decks [to feed back to the bridge] so there would be a visual check on whether the doors were shut.

• Emergency lighting should use nickel-cadmium self-contained lights; the system on the Herald went off soon after the ship heeled over because the electrical system was underwater. The self-contained lights would stay on, and have their own charge that could last hours.

• provide simple methods to bridge the alleyways which ran across the ship — and which turned into deadly, deep shafts when it turned over 90 degrees, as ships are wont to do. (They don’t turn upside down like the Poseidon Adventure. They tend to list, and end up on their side.)

• and that’s before you get on to the more complicated nautical elements such as measurement of draught (the clearance between the sea and the deck) and tonnage, and trim and KG curves (it’s about the centre of gravity).

The other thing about regulations is that because they’re there for a reason, you mess with them at your peril — especially if you’re not an expert in the field. Some of the arcana in the Herald inquiry relate to the height of jetties; you realise this can differ between countries, so that it makes sense to have regulations which regularise this. Again, it’s for safety.

All this before you get onto regulations which try to control environmental effects, such as diesel exhausts and PM25 (the microscopic particulates that can inflame the lungs). Regulating such negative externalities, and making sure that companies have to pay the cost in their production processes that they would otherwise offload onto everyone else, is an important function of regulation. You can’t sue to get healthy lungs back. You can’t sue to un-develop cancer. (Ben Thompson argues passionately against regulations in this Exponent podcast, on the basis that they carry opportunity costs; while usually I agree with Ben on pretty much any topic, on this I think he’s being too broad. The opportunity cost of being dead is significant.)

The Herald of Free Enterprise disaster did herald something: an awareness, amid a headlong rush in the west to privatise companies, that things could go wrong as well as right.

Living in ignorance

Yes, you can argue that people can — and do — ignore regulations. That’s true. But the fact of those regulations’ existence means people have to be aware that they are ignoring them. There was probably a regulation that someone should be in charge of the bow doors, but if you also have a regulation saying there has to be an indicator light on the bridge saying if they’re closed or not, you overcome human error and create a framework which many people have to knowingly ignore before other peoples’ lives are put at serious risk.

As people celebrate companies like Uber and Google which ride roughshod over the idea that existing laws or regulations should apply to them, whether it’s over what constitutes a taxi driver or what constitutes copyright, a little bit of me has this nagging feeling that we’ve been here before. Arguably, Uber had a lucky escape when its self-driving car, being used without full permission from regulators, ran through a red light. Someone could have been killed. We’ve already had a driver die while using the self-driving element of a Tesla car which then failed to interpret a turning articulated lorry correctly. Was Tesla at fault? Should there be better regulations? What should they say? These are questions that are worth asking, not assuming “it’ll get better, because Tesla/Uber/whoever will want it to”.

It might not be as dramatic as open bow doors on a ro-ro ferry under steam. But I think the warning signs are there.

Meanwhile, be thankful that if you are trapped in a capsized ship, the porthole will be made of toughened, not laminated glass. It will have cost the company more. But your life is more valuable than that.

Like this? Each weekday I produce a set of links, mostly about technology and science, plus a little politics/economics, at The Overspill. You can read the web page or sign up for the email.

8 March: Updated to correct spelling of the company name — Townsend Thoresen, not Thorensen.

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