Herald of Free Enterprise ferry hero who saved up to 40 lives

Thirty years on Larry O’Brien tells how he scaled listing ship and pulled people to safety

 

A violent heave to the left side – glasses break, people scream. Another lurch to the right and then back to the left before the ship capsizes. Water floods into the decks and the lights go out. . . .

It all happened within seconds and was enough to sink the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry and end 193 lives within sight of Zeebrugge harbour in Belgium in 1987.

Truck driver Larry O’Brien from Campile in Wexford made it on board the Herald of Free Enterprise with just minutes to spare before it left the Belgian port for Dover at 7pm on March 6th, 1987 , and he ended up a reluctant hero.

“I was the last truck on,” Mr O’Brien, a Fine Gael councillor, told The Irish Times ahead of Monday’s anniversary.

As the giant roll-on roll-off ferry left the port, he headed upstairs to the shops and bars, along with dozens of fellow truck drivers and hundreds of foot passengers, many of them on a special-offer day trip run by a newspaper.

“I was just looking around and next thing there was a gigantic heave to the left. I had been on boats for 12 years in bad weather and I had never witnessed a heave like this – the amount of noise and glass breaking and damage and screaming. She straightaway came back and then went the other way but not as much damage was caused. Then, within 10 seconds, it was over on its other side again and went fully over.”

Panic and chaos

The floors became walls and the water was about three-quarters of the way up those “walls”, he says.

“I looked around me at the panic and the chaos. Even at that stage there were actually bodies floating in the water. I thought, ‘what am I going to do? I certainly don’t want to die.’ The first thing that came to my mind was that there was only one way out, and that’s up.

“When you look up – you have to imagine the ship completely on its side – all you see is porthole windows and a few chairs upside down. The water was still coming in at this stage. People were getting up out of the water and standing on glass panels but glass will only take so many people and a number of the panels broke and people were falling back in.

“The will to live and survive is a great thing. My wife and my two-year-old daughter came into my mind,” said O’Brien (who was then 32).

He grabbed a firehose reel and pulled it to try and make his way towards the nearest cracked porthole and, after initially slipping when the reel gave way, his feet dangling over the water, he got back up again. “I eventually got myself out. I was on the side of the ship, the hull, and looked around and could see the lights of Zeebrugge,” he said. “The screams and roars that were coming out from the inside were unbelievable.”

Saved lives

He sat down, realised there was no-one else on the outside and then thought he had to start doing something. “Whatever mode I got into or put myself in, I got up and there was a big rope hanging on the side so I picked it up and threw it back in the porthole window.”

After several minutes he had pulled out three or four men, who then started helping him. At least 30, and probably up to 40, lives were saved by O’Brien and the others. After about 45 minutes, the emergency services began to arrive and eventually the survivors were brought back to port.

Media attention ensued as word of his actions spread, but when asked how he reacted to being praised as a hero, he says: “Not great. I personally didn’t feel I was. It took me a long time to come to grips with it. I felt I done only what anyone else would do at the time.”

Three decades on, the images remain vivid. “I don’t let it affect me now in any way. I came home at the time and, like any young fella, I was after building a new house and had a mortgage and had a truck on payments that wasn’t around any more. I took three or four weeks and then thought, I can’t keep this up.”

Previously self-employed with his own truck – which was now a wreck with no marine insurance cover or compensatio – he got a job as a driver with Transcontinental in Rosslare.

‘Eerie feeling’

“I just had to prove to myself I was going to go back and do it. I distinctly remember the very first night I left Rosslare afterwards, going to Spain, and it was probably one of the roughest nights leaving Rosslare. I didn’t go to bed, I stayed up by the bar the whole trip.”

He gave up driving in 1988 and became a car sales manager in New Ross, was later elected to Wexford County Council. Two years ago he returned to continental driving with National Vehicle Distribution, collecting trucks from Europe and bringing them back to Ireland.

He returned to Zeebrugge soon after the tragedy to see his truck when the ship was raised. “It was only scrap. It was an eerie feeling to see the stuff people had been killed in.”

The tragedy still raises its head. “I was coming back last week from Austria and sitting in Calais, it was horrendous weather . . . looking out over the walls and seeing the waves. ‘Here am I getting on a ship again, would I not have enough of this?’

“But it’s something that’s in your blood. I said to myself, ‘you’re here now and you have to deal with it’.”

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