A school and a fire both feature in our third Memory Lane story this week. It was April 1990 when a French trip by Sandye Place Middle School children turned into a nightmare scenario after fire broke out in the engine room of the Brittany ferry on which they were travelling.
The ferry was making its homeward journey from Caen to Portsmouth when the fire started. Aound 20 children, aged between 11 and 13, were sent to the safety of the deck along with the rest of the passengers. One boy was reported to have said that he was “too young to die” but thankfully none of the children were harmed.
There were casualties however. An air sea rescue helicopter had to airlift a crew member who had been overcome by fumes, and another passenger, a 66-year-old Normandy veteran, had a heart attack. Despite valiant attempts by Henlow nurse Rosalie Greenwood and the ship’s doctor to save him, he did not survive.
After the drama was over, exactly 25 years ago today, anxious Sandye Place parents gathered for a tearful reunion with their sons and daughters. One mother had only known about the disaster when she saw it on the TV. She described it as “the longest night of my life”. Another parent admitted how helpless they had all felt: “We couldn’t go down there to Portsmouth. There was nothing we could do.”
Head teacher Peter Teague and the chair of governors at the time, whose daughter was also one of the pupils on board, had phoned parents to let them know their children were safe.
Teacher Jan Anstee who accompanied the group said: “We were made aware of the fire and as far as the children were concerned there was no panic on board. The ship’s staff were very calm.”