Feature: Becky recalls how tragedy unfolded in Herald of Free Enteprise disaster

Zeebrugge ferry disaster on March 6, 1987

Zeebrugge ferry disaster on March 6, 1987

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IT was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history. MS Herald of Free Enterprise was making a routine sailing from Zeebrugge to Dover on March 6, 1987 when it capsized within minutes of leaving the Belgian port.

A total of 193 people were killed in the disaster the worst since the sinking of the Iolaire in Scotland in 1919.

17/2/12- Becky, Jim, Thomas, Lauren and Daniella Faulkner from St Leonards

17/2/12- Becky, Jim, Thomas, Lauren and Daniella Faulkner from St Leonards

The ferry’s bow doors had been left open allowing large quantities of water to pour into the car deck and leaving the vessel in grave danger.

In a matter of seconds, the ship began to list 30 degrees to port.

The ship briefly righted herself before listing to port once more and capsizing. The entire event took place within 90 seconds.

Fourteen people from Hastings and St Leonards were aboard the vessel that terrifying evening.

Four of them lost their lives, Sheila McKenny, 54, Darren Perkins, 21, his brother Simon aged 18, and Nicola Payne, 20, Darren’s girlfriend.

The 25th anniversary of the disaster was yesterday, Tuesday (Mar 6). Observer chief reporter Sol Buckner spoke to Mrs McKenny’s granddaughter Rebecca Faulkner, now 43, about the impact it had on her life.

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DOZENS of people poured into the cafe to get something to eat as the ferry set sail for home.

But home would never be the same again for the survivors of one of the world’s worst passenger ferry disasters.

Just seconds after Becky sat down in the busy on-board cafeteria she noticed her cutlery start to slowly slide forward.

It was the start of the most traumatic 10 minutes of her life which she would never forget.

“I had just sat down with my family. We had a good day in Bruges and were pretty tired and hungry by then.

“We were just getting ready to get something to eat from the cafe when I noticed the cutlery start to slide across the table.

“I did not think much of it but seconds later the whole ship suddenly tilted. I grabbed hold of the plastic table and thought: “What the hell is happening?”’

“It then lurched violently forward and I just grabbed on for dear life. It was terrifying. I saw a middle aged woman in a wheelchair slide right across to the window and smash right through it.

“Then the lights went off and we were plunged into darkness. There was mass hysteria, people screaming and trying to get up away from the obvious water that was coming in.

“Then the lights came back on for a split second and I saw the water pouring in through the window and rapidly rising.

“They went off and it was obvious then that this was very serious and we were sinking very fast.

“It was absolutely terrifying and it was everyone for themselves at that point. The ship had gone right over onto its side.

“I could not see or hear my grandmother or any member of my family. People were stamping on my head as they clambered to get out. I just blacked out and the next thing I knew I was in a harness being hauled 20ft up and out through one of the holes.

“By then there were fishing boats next to the ship and rescuers had smashed through the windows to get to us.

“I just remember being winched up and out and sitting on the hull of the boat thinking: “Is this really happening to me?”’

“I had to slide down the side of the ship and into a fishing trawler that took me to the harbour. I had no idea where my family were and no idea that I would never see my grandmother again.”

After returning home to her family flat in Bayeux Court in Bohemia Road life would never be the same for Becky.

She even had to break back in through a glass window with the help of the fire brigade to gain access as they had lost the keys during the disaster.

Becky tried to settle back in to life in class at Hastings College where she was studying for a BTEC in Graphic Design but life was hard.

She struggled to get to grips with daily life as she suffered from constant flashbacks, panic attacks and nightmares at night.

Becky explained: “I wanted to get back to normal.

“I really did but I kept having panic attacks all the time. My brain was processing the images of what happened that night.

“I was still going to college but my friends did not know how to talk to me. They found it a bit strange that I would want to talk about it.

“My gran was not found for another month until she was washed up on a beach in Holland. I was asked to identify her through dental records at a funeral directors in Battle but I did not want to go. I think Richard went in the end.”

Becky went deeper and deeper into herself but still carried on at college.

She managed to complete her BTEC in Graphic Design at Hastings College but lost her friends over the summer months of 1987.

Over the next two years she hardly ever went out and spent most of her time locked in her bedroom suffering from depression.

It was not until the Channel Fund, which was set up to help survivors, bought her a Tibetan terrier that Becky started to come out of her shell.

She called him Bilbo and for the first time she had something to focus on. It helped get her out of the house by taking him for walks.

After going through the trauma of the inquest into her grandmother in October 1987, Becky ended up being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, a condition more associated with veterans of conflicts such as the Falklands War.

“I went to see a doctor and he sent me to a psychiatrist at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Chelsea who diagnosed acute post traumatic stress disorder.

“I was constantly having flashbacks – I had to go to be assessed for my compensation.

“The local doctor here just said: “Pull yourself together”. I just needed someone to understand what I had been through.

“I received £20,000 I think and I put that into buying a new house with my mother.

“I felt a bit of guilt because 90 per cent of those people in the cafeteria died including my grandmother.”

“I did nothing with myself -. I had lost faith with people.”

Using her compensation money Becky and her mother bought a new semi-detached three bedroom house in Field Way.

And it was then that Becky’s life finally started to come together when she fell for the boy next door.

“Jim lived next door and we knew each other through college.

“It really helped moving house. There were too many memories at the flat.

“I started going out with him in January 1990 and we dated for a while before realising Jim was very important to me.

“We got married in August 1991 and then I moved in with Jim next door which was strange at the time.

“I started to get back to normality then. Jim helped me through it and threated me like normal. He knew what I was like before the disaster which really helped. We started a family in 1994 when Thomas was born.

“It was like a twist of fate moving in to Field Way and meeting Jim.

“The nightmares disappeared and it had been hard work coping with it all on my own.

“We started a family in 1994 when Thomas was born and two years later we moved to Washington Avenue where we have been ever since.

“The kids never really ask about the disaster. They just can’t comprehend it.

“When I watched Costa Concordia it brought the memories flooding back and seeing it on its side.

“But we knew it was not the captain of the Herald’s fault as he had pushed the boat around on to a sandbank. If did not do that we would not have got off.

“I will not travel on a plane or a boat since. It’s just that nagging doubt. I don’t like relying on somebody else being in charge. I went on the channel tunnel once to Disneyland in Paris which was alright.

“I fell out with my mother after the disaster - I don’t talk to her any more.

“And I put a lot of the family trauma down to the disaster. I could have had a better relationship with my mother and a career. But at least I survived.”