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'Thames tragedy must not happen again'

PUBLISHED: 17:55 19 August 2009 | UPDATED: 10:59 23 August 2010

A LIFEBOAT station manager says it is vital to remember the 51 people who died in the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames as a memorial service is held. The Marchioness sank after colliding with the dredger Bowbelle near Southwark Bridge at about 2a

A LIFEBOAT station manager says it is vital to remember the 51 people who died in the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames as a memorial service is held.

The Marchioness sank after colliding with the dredger Bowbelle near Southwark Bridge at about 2am on August 20, 1989.

Today survivors and those who lost loved ones were due to gather at Southwark Cathedral, south London to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

In the wake of the disaster, a report by Lord Justice Clarke recommended setting up search and rescue teams, including the RNLI base in Gravesend.

Station manager at Gravesend RNLI station, Ian Dunkley, 56, of Scott Road, Gravesend, said: "It's important to mark these things. It was a terrible tragedy that probably shouldn't have happened.

"Our thoughts obviously go out to the families and friends of people who lost their lives in this tragedy."

The subsequent Marine Accident Investigation Branch report into the incident blamed poor lookouts on both vessels and the fact that both were cruising down the middle of the river.

In February 2000, then Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions John Prescott, ordered a formal investigation into the circumstances of the collision to be chaired by Lord Justice Clarke. As a result of recommendation in the report, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the RNLI and the Port of London set up a search and rescue team on the Thames. In January 2002 four lifeboat stations were set up in Gravesend, Tower Pier, Chiswick Pier and Teddington to improve safety on the river.

Mr Dunkley said: "The disaster obviously highlighted some serious issues on the river that caused the service to come into place.

"An awful lot of lessons have been learnt but water can be a dangerous thing. A lot of changes have been made yet accidents happen in a lot of different ways. However, now we are here we are working to deal with anything that occurs."

The search and rescue service on the Thames in now the busiest in the RNLI.

In 2008, Thames lifeboats were called out 711 times, leading to the rescue of 224 people.

Mr Dunkley said: "The Thames lifeboats have made an enormous difference. You have only got to look at the number of incidents the four Thames life boats actually cover in a year.

"We certainly believe that far more people are rescued and assisted each year since we have been working and it has certainly been a very valuable service.

"Hopefully, with the lifeboat service on the Thames as a result of Marchioness, we can prevent such a thing happening in the future."

The Marchioness had been hired to celebrate the 26th birthday of banker Antonio de Vasconcellos and was packed with more than 130 partygoers. On board was Francesca Dallaglio, 19, the sister of former England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio.

Several services will be held throughout the day in which the names of all those who died will be read out and two wreaths laid at the Marchioness memorial inside the cathedral.

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