Marchioness Riverboat Disaster

We acted on behalf of 48 survivors and families of victims of the Marchioness riverboat disaster which occurred in the early hours of 20 August 1989. 153 people were on board the pleasure vessel Marchioness celebrating the 26th birthday of Antonio De Vasconcellos. The vessel was struck by a 2,000 ton dredger, owned by Ready Mixed Concrete, close to Southwark Bridge. The dredger, the Bowbelle ran over the cruiser, forcing it under water. It sank rapidly. 51 people died, many of them trapped in the vessel as it sank.

The captain of the Bowbelle, Captain Henderson was prosecuted for failing to keep an adequate lookout, twice. On both occasions, the jury failed to reach a unanimous verdict. The coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, opened and adjourned the inquests pending criminal proceedings. A number of families were unsuccessful in their bid to bring a private prosecution for corporate manslaughter against the owners of the vessels.

A report into how the incident occurred was ordered by the Secretary of State for Transport in 1991 and reported to Parliament in 1992. Although the report was critical of the owners of both vessels and the Department of Transport, survivors and families felt that it did not constitute a thorough investigation of all the circumstances giving rise to the collision, nor did it provide adequate recommendations for future safety improvements.

When Dr Knapman refused to resume any of the inquest into the deaths of the 51 victims, the families sought a judicial review of that decision in the divisional court. The coroner’s decision was maintained. The families appealed to the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal found that Dr Knapman had acted with an appearance of bias against the families and confirmed that a new coroner should consider whether or not the inquest ought properly to be resumed. Dr John Burton was appointed in Dr Knapman’s place and heard representations about why it was appropriate for there to be a full inquest. He agreed with the families and the inquest was resumed in 1995.

One of the issues looked at at the resumed inquest was the decision of Dr Knapman and his deputy, Dr Dolman, to remove the hands from victims for finger printing purposes rather than make arrangements for finger printing to be carried out at Westminster Morgue. Until the inquest proceedings, the families were unaware of this process having taken place. After a hearing lasting a number of weeks, the inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing of all 51 victims.

Civil claims for compensation were brought on behalf of survivors and family members. However, many of those killed were young, single and without dependents and without established career paths. It was therefore the case for many of the young victims, that their families received very modest amounts of compensation even though the victims had a real potential had had died in horrific circumstances.

In 2000, the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered a public inquiry into the sinking of the Marchioness riverboat and a separate inquiry into the identification procedures utilised by the coroner. The inquiry was chaired by Lord Justice Clarke, the former Admiralty Judge. His report blamed poor lookouts on both vessels for the collision and criticised the owners and managers of both vessels for failing to properly instruct and monitor their crews. His second report criticised the coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, for the decision to remove the hands of victims for identification purposes, saying "this should not have happened".

The report into the sinking said "the basic cause of the collision is clear. It was poor lookout on both vessels. Neither vessel saw the other in time to take action to avoid the collision". Lord Clarke described the sinking as a "catastrophe which should never have happened" and was highly critical of the master of the Bowbelle, Captain Douglas Henderson, who had being out drinking, and had drunk at least 6 pints during the day before the "Bowbelle" left its birth at around 1.00 am. Captain Henderson also failed to provide any rescue assistance to those in the water. Many victims managed to escape from the vessel and then subsequently drowned in the strong currents on the Thames.

"He should have broadcast a May Day and he should have deployed both the life boats on the Bowbelle and her life raft" said Lord Clarke. Lord Clarke made 30 recommendations to improve river safety to include far stricter alcohol regulations on the waterways and for very significant improvement of search and rescue services on rivers.

Every year a service of remembrance is held as Southwark Cathedral for those who lost their lives. Michael Napier, Guy Darlaston and Sallie Booth acted on behalf of victims and their families and remain close supporters of the Marchioness Action Group whose chairman, Margaret Lockwood-Croft, has tirelessly campaigned to improve safety standards since she lost her only son, Shaun, in this tragedy.

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