I was on the Kashmir Princess and the Herald of Free Enterprise

Kashmir Princess

In 1952, together with my parents and brother, I spent some time in Europe — Austria, Germany and Switzerland. The final leg of the trip was from Geneva to Bombay, and we booked a plane flight.

Farewell in Geneva — that’s seven-year-old me in the middle. And that’s our plane in the background.

The flight in the four-propeller machine the first in my life, something to tell fellow pupils about back at school. The Lockheed L-749A Constellation owned by Air India was called the Kashmir Princess.

If you google that name you will know what I am about to tell you, and why the name has stuck in my memory. Three years after our flight the Kashmir Princess was chartered by the Chinese government to ferry passengers from Hong Kong to Jakarta, to attend an Asian-African conference.

Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai, as their names were spelled at the time.

Booked on the flight was Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China. He served under Chairman Mao Zedong and was instrumental in the Communist Party’s rise to power.

At the last minute he rescheduled his trip and the plane took off without the second man in the Chinese government aboard.

Five hours into the flight the crew heard a loud explosion and smoke entered the cabin. A fire was visible behind the right inboard engine. The captain decided to attempt a sea landing. He instructed the crew to hand out life jackets and open the emergency doors to allow a quick escape when the plane plunged into the water.

The plane broke into three pieces upon contact with the sea and only three souls — all members of the flight crew — survived. The explosion had been caused by a time bomb believed to have been placed aboard the aircraft in an attempt to assassinate Zhou. The Chinese government pointed its fingers at a Taiwanese Secret Service agent working out of Hong Kong. He escaped to Taiwan aboard a CIA-owned transport plane before he could be arrested.

Herald of Free Enterprise

In 1986 I packed wife Ingrid and our two sons, 11 and 3½ years old, into our car and we made our way to London. We drove to the northern French city of Calais and got onto the ferry for the trip over the channel to Dover.

The Herald of Free Enterprise, owned by Townsend Thoresen, was an eight-deck car and passenger ferry. It was especially designed for rapid loading. We simply drove on. It was late, and the boys were very sleepy. So, although that was not allowed, Ingrid and the boys slept in the car — a lot of people were doing the same. I went onto the passenger deck and spent the night on a reclining chair. We got to Dover on time, and drove to London. Ten days later we took the same ferry back to Calais and returned home safely.

Eight months later we saw the story on the news: the Herald of Free Enterprise had left the harbour, this time Zeebrugge in Belgium, with its bow doors open. Seawater rapidly flowed onto the decks, and within minutes the ship capsized and was lying on her side in shallow water.

Normally ships like this have watertight compartments, designed to provide buoyancy if the hull is damaged. The Herald lacked this compartmentation, and seawater could flow easily the length of the ship. Passengers who had remained in their cars, as Ingrid and the kids had done, were trapped and drowned in the freezing water. 193 died.

Addendum: Death in Elista

In 2007 I travelled from Elista to Volgograd to catch a flight. I was taken there by a wanna-be racing driver who really rejoiced on the empty roads between the cities. I asked him to stop speeding, but he replied: “Road is straight, is safe.” Everything went well. But on the next day the very same driver in the very same car was driving a friend to the same airport — and crashed. The friend died a week later in hospital. The full story is told in this article.

I ask myself: am I somehow causing such disasters?

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The Friedel Chronicles

The Friedel Chronicles

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Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.