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Thirty years on from the Marchioness disaster relatives fear they buried the wrong person

Even in death, Elsa Garcia did not rest in peace. After her tragic drowning in the Marchioness boat disaster on the River Thames, her body was exhumed from her grave so her mother, Lucia, could at last learn the truth.

Eleven years after she had been dragged from the river, she still had a deep gash from a propeller on her left eyebrow, as well as a police identity tag tied to her ankle. 

What was most striking, however, was the fact that both her hands were missing. 

But at least her family discovered to their relief that they had not buried a stranger, a hideous scenario other relatives believe has happened to them.

Elsa, 25, a London-based language student heading for a banking career, was one of 51 young people killed in the disaster, one of the most controversial accidents of our times.

The Marchioness boat disaster on the River Thames in 1989 resulted in the deaths of 51 people

In the bright moonlit early hours of August 20, 1989, she died with other party goers on the pleasure cruiser after it was mown down by dredger, the Bowbelle, on the fast flowing river near the City of London. Their deaths were heartbreaking enough. But what followed made things infinitely worse.

For it emerged later that nearly half of the Marchioness victims — including Elsa — had their hands secretly amputated in a chaotic and botched identification process. The scale of the scandal became clear after Elsa had been interred near her family home in Córdoba, Spain. Four years later, her hands were suddenly found in a black bin liner at the back of a London mortuary fridge.

The unprecedented and macabre amputations were said to be necessary because the bodies had been in the water for days and some had disintegrated, so that accurate fingerprinting was difficult. In a decision which no doubt also speeded up the process of identifying so many dead, the severed hands were then sent to an off-site laboratory which was claimed to be the ‘best way’ 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.

But many of those relatives believe there was an even more sinister reason: that, because of an appalling mix-up during this bizarre two-site identification operation, some of them were given the wrong bodies to bury.

This week one grieving mother, Margaret Lockwood Croft, whose 26-year-old son Shaun died on the Marchioness and was one of those who had hands removed, told the Mail: ‘I still believe that my son may be in the wrong grave. I plan to have him exhumed so that at last I know where he is.

Elsa Garcia was one of the 51 people who lost their lives when the Marchioness sank

Shaun Lockwood-Croft

Elsa Garcia (left) was one of the 51 people who lost their lives when the Marchioness sank. Shaun Lockwood-Croft (right), was also killed

‘I go to the village, near where we used to live in Aldershot, where he is buried,’ added Margaret, now 80. ‘I always have a strong feeling he is not there at all. I think he is at a London cemetery and under the headstone of another Marchioness victim altogether.’

Shaun’s death is, inevitably, her saddest memory, and this week she gathered with the families of other Marchioness victims for a memorial service at Southwark Cathedral to mark the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

But the aftermath of the sinking and the treatment of their dead relatives has left an indelible scar too. As she put it: ‘It was a disaster heaped on a disaster.’

With no lifeboats and few safety regulations on the Thames at the time, the Marchioness tragedy was waiting to happen. The pleasure boat had been hired to celebrate the 26th birthday of Antonio de Vasconcellos, a super-rich financier and a partner in a thriving London modelling agency.

Among the 131 on board were many from the world of fashion and rock music, successful young people starting out their lives. Their average age was 22 and the party was in full swing as the Marchioness cruised along the Thames near Southwark Bridge.

Margaret Lockwood Croft after the service at Southwark Cathedral to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Marchioness Disaster

Margaret Lockwood Croft after the service at Southwark Cathedral to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Marchioness Disaster

The Bowbelle had dumped its cargo of gravel three miles further up the river near Battersea and was proceeding east, back out to sea, at just before two in the morning to dredge for more.

Then came the calamity. Initially, the Bowbelle, three times the size of the party boat, hit the Marchioness at the back making it rock and rotate to one side. Then, the dredger mounted it ‘pushing it under the water like a toy boat’, said those who witnessed the catastrophic collision.

The odds were against any escape. The speed of the crash, the darkness that suddenly enveloped the Marchioness as her electrics failed, the cold, turbid water that rushed into the doomed vessel and the shortage of emergency exits meant many were trapped inside on the dance floor as it went down…in less than three minutes.

Others out on deck were thrown off or jumped from the boat, only to perish as they were swept miles away in the fast flowing Thames. Fewer than two-thirds of those on board that night survived the accident. A later inquest ruled all the dead had been ‘illegally killed’.

As bodies were found in the river and inside the sunken boat, they were taken to a temporary mortuary set up in a Victorian police station on the riverside, where Home Office pathologist Dr Richard Shepherd was called in.

Now retired, he recalled in his recent memoir: ‘It was just a room, really. Its concrete floor was nearly covered by body bags. All of them lay open and in each one lay the body of a young adult. All dressed for a party, many in bright colours.’

A terrible sight. But it is what happened next that chilled Margaret Lockwood Croft’s soul.

She had seen on TV news at her Hampshire home about the Marchioness going down on the Sunday morning, but did not realise Shaun, a telecommunications’ salesman, was on board.

In the evening, when a flatmate of her son called to say he was missing from the fateful party boat, she knew immediately there was a high chance she had lost him.

Pictured are survivors of the disaster. Fewer than two-thirds of those on board that night survived the accident

Pictured are survivors of the disaster. Fewer than two-thirds of those on board that night survived the accident

Margaret began to put together a full description of the clothes he was wearing and details of his Dunhill watch and the signet ring with his initials SLC on it that she had bought him. Wanting to help the police identify him quickly if he had drowned, she went the following day to a London police station where waiting relatives were told to give in any information they had.

Along with the list of clothes and accessories she had prepared, she handed in details of Shaun’s dentist so the police could find his dental records, which in those days were routinely used in the identification of bodies.

Shaun’s body was pulled from the Thames two days later, on Wednesday, August 23. He was brought ashore to the mortuary and police photographs were taken, a normal exercise following a death in an accident.

But this was followed by an autopsy where, shockingly, his hands were surgically severed from his arms to be sent away to the lab where the fingerprinting was to take place.

Margaret did not know this at the time. She only became suspicious that something was amiss 11 days after the accident, when the police said Shaun’s body could be collected from the mortuary and taken to her chosen funeral parlour to be prepared for burial.

She immediately went there to see the coffin. She remembers now: ‘It was sealed and there was a name plate on the top. I tried to open it, but it was tightly closed so I went outside to ask the funeral director to open it. He was near to tears.

‘He said he was terribly sorry, but that the coroner’s staff had instructed him that nobody could view the body. He said this had never happened before’.

It took nearly two and a half years for Margaret to discover that Shaun’s hands had been cut off. The confession came after she besieged the Marchioness’s coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, with questions about why she had not been allowed to see her son’s body. In the spring of 1992, Dr Knapman admitted for the first time in correspondence with her: ‘Hands are surgically removed by the pathologist on the authorisation of the coroner when it is impossible for fingerprints to be taken in the normal manner.

‘I believe it would have caused unnecessary distress to inform all families of what happens during the course of autopsy and identification.’ Remarkably, he faxed Margaret a lengthy list of all the Marchioness victims whose hands had been removed.

He later gave a statement regarding Shaun, saying: ‘I was led to believe at the time that severing the hands and taking them to the lab was the best way of obtaining suitable fingerprints.’

For his mother it was an unbearable situation: ‘From the start I offered to identify the body myself, but was told I could not see Shaun by the mortuary staff and the police. I just wanted that final confirmation he was gone. To have touched his hand or stroked his hair.’

So what had gone wrong? Why were she and many other relatives of the victims kept in the dark?

Whatever the answer, suspicions grew of a cover up by the authorities and of bodies being wrongly identified and now lying in the wrong graves.

When Margaret’s request to see her son’s body was refused by the funeral director, she asked him for a lock of her son’s thick dark hair.

Incredibly, she was told that the body in the sealed coffin was bald. ‘If I have buried the wrong child, someone else has too’, she says today.

The relatives’ anguish was only increased by yet another horrific discovery. The hands of another five victims — including Elsa Garcia — were suddenly found in mortuary fridges, along with various organs and body specimens, which had not been reunited with their bodies before burial. As Dr Shepherd was to confirm last year: ‘Their [the relatives] anger was fuelled by their discovery that hands had been removed…in order to identify them. Even more upsetting…the hands were sent back to the mortuary but, unforgivably, some were never actually returned to their bodies.’

Margaret went on to set up the Marchioness Action Group, representing many of the victims’ families, and campaigned tirelessly to make sure that after a mass accident like this relatives are cared for, kept informed, and their wishes never ignored again by the police or the coroner.

The group has fought successfully for safety improvements on the Thames which has led to lifeboats on the river, flashing lights on bridges and a system of tracking river traffic to reduce the likelihood of crashes.

It has been a fitting legacy to Shaun. Yet over the years, Margaret’s suspicions over where her son is buried have grown. And there are serious grounds for her doubts.

The family of one young male victim was given the wrong person to bury by the mortuary. The horrendous mistake was only discovered when the family’s undertaker opened the coffin and realised the body lying there was that of a white man, not that of a black model called Simon Senior who had drowned in the disaster.

Annette Russell, who ran the model agency which organised the birthday party, was one of 80 survivors of the collision. At 26, she dived off the boat as the crash happened and swam to safety, but she lost a host of friends.

She offered to help police identify their bodies, but this was turned down, as she explained in 2004: ‘I wish to God I had been allowed to see them because maybe mistakes wouldn’t have been made. Families asked me to take care of the identification of their behalf. And now we know why I wasn’t allowed to…half had their hands cut off with the agreement of the coroner.’

Annette was to reveal that she was asked to look at the identification records of a close Australian girlfriend. ‘They stated she was white: she wasn’t, she was black; they said she didn’t have pierced ears: she did; they said she was 5ft 9in: she was 5ft 5in.

‘It broke my heart. Why didn’t they just let me identify her? I had to choose the coffin and pay for it to be sent back. But to this day I don’t know if I sent the right body back to Australia.’

As for mutilated Elsa Garcia, she was returned to rest in the Spanish grave after her mother Lucia, who has since passed away, satisfied herself that the body was that of her daughter.

There have been a plethora of official inquiries, court hearings and inquests into the sinking of the Marchioness. We know almost every detail of events up to the moment the craft sank.

Although there have been no successful prosecutions, both boats were found not to have adequate look-outs that night. Yet, an enduring mystery remains about what happened in the days after the party boat’s lights snapped out and the music stopped.

And that has never been unravelled to the satisfaction of Margaret Lockwood Croft, who is determined to find out the truth about her son Shaun’s final resting place at last.