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Fifty-one people died when the Marchioness pleasure steamer crashed into the Bowbelle dredger near Southwark Bridge on the River Thames in the early hours of August 20 1989.

There were 131 people on board celebrating the 26th birthday of a Cambridge graduate turned merchant banker Antonio De Vasconcellos. 

Many of the victims became entangled in the wreckage before drowning.   

On August 19, the Marchioness had done a normal day’s work, taking sightseers down the Thames as far as Greenwich to see the landmarks of the historic riverfront.

But in the evening, it was hired out for Mr De Vasconcellos’s party.   

According to the dry narrative report of the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents, the Marchioness was hit by the dredger Bowbelle at 1.46am on August 20. 

With 127 passengers and four crew, the party boat had just cleared Southwark Bridge.

The Bowbelle was behind the Marchioness, both boats adjusting their course to stay in the centre of the river to go under Cannon Street Railway Bridge. 

Somehow they converged, although crew members on the party boat had already seen the dredger coming up behind them and assumed it was going to overtake.

The dredger had passed a similar party boat, the Hurlingham, a few hundred yards upstream. At eight-and-a-half knots, the dredger was moving twice as fast as either of the pleasure cruisers.

Two crewmen stationed on the bow of the dredger failed to see the Marchioness ahead, and the skipper of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson, was not at the helm. He was later criticised for having drunk six pints of beer on the afternoon of the day of the accident.

As the collision became inevitable, at least one deckhand on the Marchioness shouted a warning to his skipper Stephen Faldo, who died in the accident. 

Faldo applied full throttle to try to escape the bigger boat – to no avail.

The Bowbelle weighed 1,880 tonnes and was more than 260ft in length. The Marchioness was just 85ft long, and weighed only 46 tonnes.

 The dredger’s iron hull swept the party boat’s wooden superstructure aside, crushing the Marchioness with such force that her upper deck separated from the hull.

There was outrage among victims’ families when it emerged their hands had been chopped off during the identification process. 

Officials said the amputations were necessary because the bodies had been underwater for days and had disintegrated, which made fingerprinting incredibly difficult. 

They said they sending the severed hands to be sent to an off-site laboratory was the best hope of getting an accurate result.  

Meanwhile, relatives were barred from viewing their dead loved ones, although the authorities have since argued that they were protecting them from further grief because of the state of their bodies. 

A 1991 report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch said poor lookouts on both the Marchioness and the dredger were the cause of the crash.

Ten years later, in his 2001 report, Lord Justice Clarke reached the same conclusion following a public inquiry. 

During those 10 years the captain of the Bowbelle, Douglas Henderson, was acquitted of any criminal charges in two separate trials.  

In 1991 a report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch into the disaster said poor lookouts on both vessels was the immediate cause of the tragedy.

Ten years later, in his 2001 report, Lord Justice Clarke reached the same conclusion following a public inquiry.  

An inquest reached a verdict of unlawful killing, but in 1996 the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was not enough evidence to proceed with criminal charges against those involved. 


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