“I’d dealt with many traumatic incidents in my role as a chaplain, but this sudden tragedy and the enormity of it put my pastoral ministry to the test.”
On Friday 6 March 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise capsized off the coast of Zeebrugge en route to Dover.
The disaster claimed 193 lives.
Thirty years on from the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster, retired Sailors’ Society port chaplain Bill McCrea describes how he supported grieving families.
“I was on duty that sad evening in my role as chaplain to the Merchant Navy and National Sea Training College in Gravesend.
“I was with a number of the young trainees as well as several crew members of the Herald who were at the college studying.”
Gradually, news came through that a British ferry was in trouble.
“When the men realised it was their ship they became deeply anxious; the only reason they weren’t on board was because they were at the college studying for their Efficient Deck Hand (EDH) certificate.”
Later on that evening, Bill heard the devastating news that the disaster had resulted in a huge loss of life.
He travelled to Dover as soon as he could and spent two weeks in the Seafarers’ Centre providing practical and emotional support.
“It was an incredible shock to my system and I was very anxious.
“I have dealt with individual loss of life with seafarers’ families over the years, but it was the enormity of the situation. So many people lost their lives that night.
“I wanted to do the right things but you can’t go about it in a gung-ho way.”
As chaplain at two of the nautical colleges in Gravesend, Bill knew the students well.
“A young fellow, who was 17, fell one night on his way over to the mission. They’d rush over to get to the phones first or on to the table tennis tables and on his way over he tripped and split his forehead. We took him to hospital to get stitches.”
A few weeks later, the teenager died in the disaster - his first posting as a seafarer.
“He had only just finished his college course two weeks before and I knew him well.”
Bill conducted the boy’s funeral service, comforting his family as he, too, struggled to come to terms with the devastating loss.
“As much as I ministered to his family, they ministered to me too.”
Some of the families had to wait a long time for the recovery of their loved ones’ bodies.
“One woman, whose husband I buried, had to wait six weeks before they found his body. I gave her all the support I could during that time.
“Who can train you for that? Not even theological training. You depend upon the grace of God.
“The families were a great support to me, I was there to care for them but they reciprocated that and as a result I got to know them really well.”
Bill officiated at four funeral services for the victims.
“All the services I held were attended by crew who survived; it was part of their shared grief.”
He also supported passengers who had survived the sinking.
“I met a woman on one of my hospital visits; she lost her husband that night. She told me the only reason she survived was that a truck driver helped keep her awake by pinching her.
“There were a lot of heroic acts that went on that night.”
Following the tragedy, Bill would continue to visit family members he had supported in Dover for many years.
He even met crew members who had survived the disaster on ship visits years later.
On the first anniversary, Bill led a memorial service at the request of the families starting a tradition that Sailors’ Society has repeated every year since. The 2017 service will be held at St Mary’s Church Dover, home of the main memorial to the victims of the tragedy and where Bill held one of the funeral services for the lost.
“No one wants to be involved in this sort of tragedy and it was a big strain on me at the time but supporting those I did is a great honour.”