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Swift response in the Channel

FROM all around the world, hearts and prayers go out to those involved in the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise Friday night off the coast of Zeebrugge, Belgium. The victims, their families, their rescuers, and perhaps especially those who still must wait for word, need special support. Three inquiries into the causes of the accident - by the British, by the Belgians, and by the British company that owns the ferry - are under way, with reports expected within a few weeks. Surely they will call for some modification of ferry design or at least procedures that will prevent another such tragedy. Attention has focused on reports that the doors of the Herald were open as the ferry pulled out of the harbor, and already, Channel ferries are being ordered to close all bow and stern doors before leaving port.

It is sometimes the most routine trips that can appear to cause the biggest heartaches, because safety procedures are relaxed in familiar surroundings - after all, the English Channel is the busiest sea lane in the world.

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Through all the difficulties, though, there have been touching tales of heroism - such as that of a man who was able to rescue two young girls, plus a baby he held by its clothes in his teeth. Then there was the man who made a bridge of his 6-foot-3-inch body to let some 20 people crawl over him to safety.

And the Belgians are to be commended for the swiftness and efficiency of their response.

The provincial governor was on the scene within minutes of the accident; the King and Queen, along with Prime Minister Wilfried Martens, joined him that night. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Duke and Duchess of York also came to visit survivors of the sinking.

The initial SOS put forth by a dredging barge that happened to be nearby called forth an armada of rescue vessels, including some ships of the Belgian, British, and Dutch Navies involved in a NATO minesweeping exercise nearby. The dockside support was likewise immediate, and was credited with helping minimize the casualties.

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