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Tragedy in the North Sea - remembering the European Gateway disaster

PUBLISHED: 12:01 19 December 2019

The impotent European Gateway from the air  Picture: RICHARD SNASDELL

The impotent European Gateway from the air Picture: RICHARD SNASDELL

On December 19, 1982 the people of Felixstowe were going about their Christmas preparations when an accident occured which would affect the town for months and years to come.

A story that dominated the news for three months started in December 1982 when two ships collided about a mile off Felixstowe. The ferry European Gateway capsized and lay on a sandbar until a Dutch salvage company refloated the ship  Picture: DAVID KINDREDA story that dominated the news for three months started in December 1982 when two ships collided about a mile off Felixstowe. The ferry European Gateway capsized and lay on a sandbar until a Dutch salvage company refloated the ship Picture: DAVID KINDRED

The photographs still shock. A bewildered casualty being winched to safety. The ferry European Gateway lying on its side in the North Sea, impotent. Six people died when it capsized.

What happened?

The roll on-roll off vehicle and passenger ferry was a Townsend Thoresen vessel. It left Felixstowe on December 19, 1982 - bound for mainland Europe in force 8-10 winds. About a mile out, at 10.50pm, it collided with Speedlink Vanguard. This was a British Rail ferry heading towards Parkeston, Harwich.

The  Speedlink Vanguard at Harwich the morning after the collision with the European Gateway  Picture: ARCHANTThe Speedlink Vanguard at Harwich the morning after the collision with the European Gateway Picture: ARCHANT

Holed, the European Gateway listed and capsized. It came to rest, on its side, on a sandbank. The ship had 34 passengers and 36 crew.

The rescue

Many vessels mounted a major operation. Less than 60 minutes later, nearly everyone on the European Gateway was accounted for. Some needed treatment for the effects of the cold, and were warmed in the sauna of a DFDS ferry.

The European Gateway on her side off Felixstowe after the accident in 1982  Picture: ARCHANTThe European Gateway on her side off Felixstowe after the accident in 1982 Picture: ARCHANT

Half a dozen men were missing. Five bodies were later found; one was not.

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Four of the dead were European Gateway crew members. The others were lorry drivers.

This picture was taken in March '83 as tugs attempted to pull the European Gateway clear. Water is pumped from her hull after she was pulled upright by a Dutch salvage ship  Picture: Dave KindredThis picture was taken in March '83 as tugs attempted to pull the European Gateway clear. Water is pumped from her hull after she was pulled upright by a Dutch salvage ship Picture: Dave Kindred

The fight for life

Truckers Paul Clayden and Ivan Hardy were in a cabin when the alert sounded. In the dark, they headed for a "pinprick of light". They found an engineer, who led them out through the ship.

They waited with about 30 other passengers and crew until a pilot boat captain risked his life to manoeuvre to within inches of the sinking ship so they could cross to safety.

"It was an amazing act of bravery," Paul said. "He couldn't have known whether the ship was going to turtle on top of him, but it was a good job he was there."

The wreckage of a container and trailer from the European Gateway  Picture: TONY RAYThe wreckage of a container and trailer from the European Gateway Picture: TONY RAY

Aftermath

The European Gateway was refloated the following year, and repaired.

In 1984, an inquiry blamed the captains of both vessels. Each was confused about which side to pass and both thought they were taking avoiding action.

Pumping water from the European Gateway in March 1983  Picture: Dave KindredPumping water from the European Gateway in March 1983 Picture: Dave Kindred

That year, a memorial to the dead was unveiled on the cliff tops in Wolsey Gardens, Felixstowe.

Former mayor Mike Deacon, who helped organise the memorial, said: "To see the hull of a ship lying on its side, knowing that people have died, is one of those things I will never forget."


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