‘My friends died. They’re partying now’

Author: Jonathan Owen meets Odette Penwarden

“I remember Antonio wanted to have a big party and it was me that
suggested we have it on one of the river boats … because I knew Steve
[skipper of the Marchioness] and that his boat did late-night parties.”

The evening could not have got off to a better start, she recalls: “It
had been a beautiful, glorious day, there was great excitement; it was all
very ‘kissy-kissy’ and ‘hello darling’ … there were all different kinds of
people there.”

The party was in full swing and she was dancing with 28-year-old Jeffrey
Gibbs, one of her best friends, at around a quarter to two in the morning. “All
of a sudden there was a lurch and the boat swayed … and then there was an
almighty crash and the windows shattered and water came in. The only way I
can describe what it was like was if you were in a washing machine because
the water came in and tipped me over. I remember being under the water in
the boat, being tossed about.

“I remember coming out, and it was like a champagne cork coming out of a
bottle because there were quite a lot of us all came out together, sort of
floundering about …. I could hear screams, I could hear people crying, a
lot of shouting, a lot of people shouting people’s names. And, because the
water was warm, because it was a full moon, it didn’t occur to me that
people were going to die.”

Fifty-one bodies were pulled from the Thames that night, the party boat full
of carefree passengers crushed by the 1,880-ton dredger, Bowbelle, as they
passed under Southwark Bridge.

Many of the partygoers that night were very young. At 42, Yorkshire-born Ms
Penwarden was older than most. She was working as a marketing executive at
Thames tourism company City Cruises back in 1989 ? a job she left shortly
after the disaster. With a failed marriage behind her, she had come to
London in her mid thirties to make a fresh start.

As the 20th anniversary of the tragedy looms this Thursday, she speaks for the
first time, with remarkable candour, about how she has struggled to rebuild
her life and deal with her guilt at being the sole survivor of a group of
five people she knew from that night. We sit together having a cup of tea in
the refectory of Southwark Cathedral, a few minutes’ walk away from where
the Marchioness sank. Her memories are sharp and painful.

“I could have died that night; I came this close,” she says quietly,
reaching across the table and almost touching her thumb and forefinger
together. But her face betrays no major emotion at this point. Her
appearance is remarkably casual. In pale-pink linen trousers, white slip-on
shoes and a turquoise T-shirt, with tanned face and streaked blonde hair,
she could almost be chatting about her holiday. The real expression is in
her eyes, which burn intensely as she recalls that night.

Discovering that her foot was tangled up in a cable, she managed to free
herself and eventually managed to escape the boat through a broken window.
Ms Penwarden refused to accept that her friends were among the dead. “It
wasn’t until two or three days afterwards that I thought, ‘They’re dead,
they’re not coming back …’, and then I got angry with them because I was
having to deal with all this and they were up there,” ? she looks
heavenwards ? “having a party.”

As she recounts her experiences I am struck by her calm, direct manner ?
testament to the years of therapy she has gone through. There’s little
obvious sign that she crawled out of a watery hell, that at times she has
resigned herself to dying and contemplated suicide. Years of treatment for
clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder blighted what had
been a promising career in tourism. Any hopes of a long-term relationship
are long vanished.

“They say there’s something called survivors’ guilt. Well, it took me
three-and-a-half years of psychotherapy to come to terms with the fact that
it was me that organised the party. I felt so guilty that I’d survived and
Jeff and Antonio and Peter and the others hadn’t survived and it was my idea
to have the party on the river in the first place.”

That she lived angered parents of others who didn’t. “With some of the
mothers, I was made to feel I’d survived and their kids had died and that
wasn’t right ? that their kids were so bright and had such a brilliant
future and I was just a 42-year-old woman …. They were parents of people I
didn’t know, who seemed to me to be very angry that I’d survived and their
child hadn’t.”

One night, after the funeral of 26-year-old Peter Jay, another close friend
who drowned when the Marchioness sank, she ended up on her own in a wine bar
and considered taking her own life. “Somehow I finished up on my own
with people I didn’t know and had a moment of panic.” She left the bar
and headed straight to the river. “I was going to throw myself in the
river and just before I did I thought I ought to ring my friend Pauline and
she rang the Samaritans …. One of them came in a cab and picked me up.

“I haven’t contemplated suicide since, but I used to see lorries and
think one’s going to mount the pavement and crush me …. I thought it
doesn’t matter if I die, I won’t fight as I fought to get out of the
Marchioness ? I’ll just let it go.” Unable to work for several
years after the disaster, Ms Penwarden took refuge in her religion, becoming
a volunteer at Southwark cathedral, and in fighting for some sort of
justice. She never got it. “No, there hasn’t been justice,” she
says firmly. “We are not going to get any justice now. We all knew that
at the end we wouldn’t get anywhere, and that’s what happened,” she
says. “We all knew they’d [the Bowbelle crew] been drinking …. It
upsets me that none of them ever said sorry.”

After years of being plagued by vivid flashbacks and nightmares she still
needs regular counselling. “To this day I still cannot watch anyone
being underwater on television … very occasionally I will still get a
flashback to that night.

“I think if the Marchioness hadn’t happened I might well be in a
relationship now. But the trauma of something like that changes you. I’m
single; I’ve had a couple of relationships since, but nothing serious and
nothing for a while.” Chuckling, the 62- year-old, who lives in a
studio flat in Beckton, east London, with three cats for company, adds: “When
people say, ‘Are you married?’, I say, ‘I’m happily divorced, thank you.'”
Brushing aside the fact that she doesn’t have children, she says: “I
was never the maternal sort.”

For the past few years she has been working at the diocesan office near
Southwark cathedral. She says “I’ve never been happier. It’s the
perfect kind of job for me. I’m front of house and spend all my time on the
phone, talking to clergy and people like that, and it’s a really nice
atmosphere.”

But she adds: “My life isn’t exciting any more. I don’t have any
adventures. My life is good but it would have been much more fun if they’d
still been here.”

There are scars that will never heal: she cannot go on crowded Tube trains and
always has to know where the nearest exits are when she is travelling on
trains or buses. “One thing it left me with was this huge consciousness
of my own mortality and this fact that you can die just like that. The one
thing that does upset me sometimes is when I’m walking across London Bridge
in the early evening and I hear music coming from a party boat. And it takes
me right back to that night and I think about the people on that boat and
hope that they are going to be OK ? and think about what happened to us.”

“There has been a lot of trauma. The worst thing was losing a circle of
friends overnight. Some of the most important people in my life just
disappeared … and one of the hardest things to come to terms with after 20
years is that you cannot help wondering what they would be doing now.”

She adds: “It’s part of my life but it’s not all my life. I have actually
come out of this as a strong woman and I’ve had an extra 20 years and that’s
the most important thing ? the fact that I’m still here. I’ve been to hell
and back and it’s taken a long time to be happy, but I’m fine now.”

And she walks away, towards London Bridge and the river.

A disaster and its aftermath: The painful route to improved river
safety

August 1989:

Marchioness sinks after colliding with the dredger Bowbelle.

April 1990:

The director for public prosecutions says Bowbelle skipper Captain Douglas
Henderson to be prosecuted for not keeping a proper lookout.

June 1990:

Inquests adjourned until criminal proceedings have ended.

July 1991:

Mr Henderson acquitted after a second jury fails to reach a verdict.

August 1991:

Marine Accident Investigation Branch report blames accident on failure of
lookouts.

November 1991:

Private prosecution brought against Bowbelle’s owners.

March 1992:

It emerges that 25 victims had their hands cut off for fingerprinting.

June 1992:

Manslaughter case against Bowbelle’s owners dismissed.

July 1992:

Coroner refuses to resume inquests. Families fight court battle to overturn
the decision.

April 1995:

Inquests resume. Verdict ? unlawful killing.

October 2000:

Public Inquiry begins, led by Lord Justice Clarke.

January 2001:

Lord Clarke’s report blames poor lookouts and criticises owners of both
vessels; makes 30 recommendations to improve river safety.

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