Jonathan Phang | BBC | 14346
On the 20th August 1989 Jonathan Phang organised a birthday celebration for his friend Antonio on London’s River Thames on a Thames Pleasure Cruiser, The Marchioness. The evening turned to tragedy when a sand dredger, The Bowbelle, ploughed into the Marchioness, which sank in just 30 seconds, near Cannon Street railway bridge. There were 131 people on board when the dredger hit. Fifty-one people died, including Antonio. Of the eight friends who met that night, only two survived. One of them was Jonathan Phang. Jonathan lost almost all his friends in the accident.
The Marchioness | BBC | 14347
The Marchioness was built in 1923 and, in 1940, was one of the “little ships” of the Dunkirk emergency evacuation. After it was hit the Marchioness rolled over and quickly filled with water. At the same time it was being pushed under the water by the Bowbelle. As the Marchioness capsized, her entire superstructure became detached.
The formal investigation put the time elapsed, from the instant of collision at 1.46 a.m. to complete immersion, at close to 30 seconds. Witnesses quoted in that investigation described the Bowbelle as “hitting the Marchioness in about its centre then mounting it, pushing it under the water like a toy boat.” Of the deceased, 24 bodies were recovered from the sunken hull. The majority of the survivors had been on the upper decks at the time of the collision.
The inquests of the victims also became controversial when parts of their bodies, which had been removed to assist with their identification, were not returned in time for their funerals. Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes called for the removal of limbs to be outlawed.
In 1991, the skipper of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson, was tried for failing to keep a proper look-out but, after two juries were deadlocked, he was formally acquitted. A Coroner’s inquest on 7 April 1995 found the victims had been unlawfully killed.
Lord Justice Clarke was instructed to investigate and his official report blamed poor lookouts on both vessels for the collision and criticised the owners and managers of both vessels for failing to instruct and monitor their crews in proper fashion.
English law provides no compensation for fatal accidents unless financial dependence at the time of death can be proven. In most cases, the victims’ families received little more than the cost of the funeral.
There is a memorial to the victims of the Marchioness disaster in nearby Southwark Cathedral. In 2001 the Royal Humane Society made 19 bravery awards to people involved in rescues at the tragedy.
The memorial in Southwark Cathedral | Alamy | 14913