By Robert and Marianne Fearnside
Just about a year ago, on May 21, in the middle of the night, our son Richard went missing from the P&O ferry 'Pride of Kent.' He had just turned 30, and to celebrate the occasion he and his fiancée had gone to the continent on holiday. That night, he boarded the ferry in Calais, France, and was heading to Dover, England.
His fiancée was the last person to report seeing him. She said he had gone on deck for a cigarette. When he didn't show up, she went to the car deck. He was not there, or anywhere else on board the vessel.
Nobody reported seeing or hearing him go overboard, and there were no CCTV cameras on the ship. We learned this when we asked to see any recorded footage of the voyage. But the authorities didn't seem too concerned; they assumed that he had jumped, voluntarily, and so the case was closed.
We later wrote to all the ferry companies that sail between England and France, asking if they had CCTV cameras on deck. Only one company, DFDS Seaways, responded. It said that it had cameras on deck, and that the cameras were crucial in yielding information that made a rescue possible some time earlier, when one person went overboard.
We were told that he had been driving for more than 14 hours the day before boarding the ferry, and had had very little sleep. So he was clearly exhausted. But he could have had an accident and fallen, a deck gate could have been left open, and a number of other explanations are possible.
If P&O had had CCTV cameras on the ship, it seems almost certain that we would have answers to our questions. We wrote to them to complain that there was no evidence of what happened to our son and received the reply that they were equally ‘mystified’. We find this response to be outrageous, given that a company that transports someone should be, to the utmost extent possible, responsible for his safety.
Whatever the extent of P&O's mystification, as far as we know they never followed up at all. Apparently their feelings were that it was too bad, but just one of those inconvenient things. Six months after the tragedy, I found absolutely no mention online of Richard's disappearance.
It appears that the ferry companies are more concerned with keeping shipboard disappearances away from the public eye than they are with clearing up cases and making known how often they happen.
The totally irresponsible indifference that P&O has exhibited, with their interest in keeping things quiet totally eclipsing their desire to avoid more such cases, is what motivated us to bring this to the public eye. Six months after Richard disappeared we began a campaign to demand that P&O Ferries install CCTV cameras on their passenger decks. (The company already has such cameras in their duty-free shops; apparently protecting against shoplifters is a greater priority to them than passenger safety.)
It is their responsibility to know what is going on aboard their own ships, not to throw out the hypothesis that someone 'probably' jumped (with absolutely no witnesses or other evidence to support it) and then not to take subsequent action is beyond belief.
We brought our petition public. In the first week alone, we obtained 80,000 signatures, an incredible figure for a petition of this kind and a show of public support for our position that these cameras belong on deck. At this time we have more than 96,000 signatures. So far,
to the best of our knowledge, P&O has not installed one such camera.
Later we received a letter from Helen Deeble, CEO of P&O, saying that this conclusion was based on "evidence from the ship's crew" and a statement from Richard's fiancée. We wrote back saying that we knew of no evidence, and asked the company to share with us what evidence it had, but received no answer. Nor do we know of anything that Richard's fiancée said that supports such an idea.
In August 2013 we had a tree-planting ceremony for him at Whitstable Castle. More than 200 people from across the country and overseas showed up, a sign to us of how well thought of he was. He was friendly and always wanted to do good.
In May of this year, we had a picnic at Whitstable Castle to observe his 31st birthday. Many of his friends showed up to join us.
We will continue to remember Richard and to honor his memory by continuing our campaign that ferry lines put CCTV cameras on deck, so others will be spared our suffering.
Our Member of Parliament, Julian Brazier, wrote to the Minister of Transport about Richard's case. The minister replied that each company was responsible for preparing its own risk assessments.
We then wrote to P&O urging them to revise their risk assessment. We received no reply, but their spokesman said that Richard's disappearance was that of only one person and that such events were infrequent. We leave you to imagine how those sentiments made us feel.