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10 April 2017

The Moby Prince disaster

Tragic toll of collision between ferry and tanker

The charred wreck of the Moby Prince pictured  in the days after the tragedy that claimed 140 lives
The charred wreck of the Moby Prince pictured
in the days after the tragedy that claimed 140 lives
The worst maritime catastrophe to occur in Italian waters in peacetime took place on this day in 1991 when a car ferry collided with an oil tanker near the harbour entrance at Livorno on the coast of Tuscany.

The collision sparked a fire that claimed the lives of 140 passengers and crew and left only one survivor.

The vessels involved were the MV Moby Prince, a car ferry en route from Liverno to Olbia, the coastal city in north-east Sardinia, and the 330-metres long oil tanker, Agip Abruzzo.

The ferry departed Livorno shortly after 22.00 for a journey scheduled to last eight and a half hours but had been under way for only a few minutes when it struck the Agip Abruzzo, which was at anchor near the harbour mouth.

The ferry’s prow sliced into one of the Agip Abruzzo's tanks, which contained 2,700 tonnes of crude oil.  The impact caused some oil to spill into the sea and a large amount to be sprayed over the ferry.  A fire broke out, which set light to the oil both on the surface of the water and on the ferry itself.  Within moments, the Moby Prince was engulfed in flames.

Although the loss of life was so tragically large the toll might have been much worse.  The Moby Prince had the capacity for 850 night-time passengers but in the event was carrying only 75 passengers in addition to the crew of 65.

Firefighters attend the Agip Abruzzo, with the enormous gash in its side caused by the collision clearly visible
Firefighters attend the Agip Abruzzo, with the enormous
gash in its side caused by the collision clearly visible
However, the outcome could have been much better had the response of rescuers not been badly hampered by confusion and miscommunication.

It emerged afterwards that many of the passengers escaped the initial fireball because crew members, in accordance with emergency procedures, had taken them to an area of the vessel protected by fireproof doors and walls, where they were to await rescue.

However, because of misunderstandings about what had happened rescuers never reached these passengers within the window for possible evacuation. Post mortem examinations concluded that the cause of death in their case was through the effect of toxic fumes and carbon monoxide rather than the fire itself, although the duration and intensity of the blaze made it unlikely rescue boats could have got close enough to take them off.

The 28 crew members of the Agip Abruzzo escaped in a lifeboat before being transferred to a rescue tug along with the one survivor from the Moby Prince, Alessio Bertrand, a 24-year-old crew member from Naples who was on his first voyage. Bertrand managed to cling to a rail on the edge of the vessel in spot that remained away from the flames long enough for him to be spotted.

The cause of the disaster was never fully explained.  The Agip Abruzzo was anchored outside the main harbour in line with accepted practice because it was carrying dangerous cargo and the Moby Prince was following its correct path out of the harbour.

A subsequent inquiry found numerous contributing factors, including the possibility of localised fog.

The plaque in Livorno bearing the names of all 140 victims of the disaster
The plaque in Livorno bearing the names
of all 140 victims of the disaster
It was also suggested that while the oil tanker’s mayday call was picked up and acted upon quickly, the distress calls from the Moby Prince were missed because the radio operator was using a portable transmitter with a weak signal rather than the vessel’s fixed radio equipment, although it could not be established why he was not at his post.

As a result, it was some time before rescuers realised that there was a second ship involved other than a small refuelling boat said to have been servicing the Agip Abruzzo.

Criminal charges were subsequently brought against a number of crew members from the tanker, officials from the port and the owner of the ferry company, but most were dropped and those individuals who appeared in court were ultimately absolved of blame.

Travel tip:

The victims of the Moby Prince tragedy are commemorated with a memorial plaque in the Porto Mediceo area of the harbour at Livorno. Porto Mediceo was originally commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici and redeveloped in the mid-19th century under the last of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Leopold II.

Livorno hotels from Expedia

Livorno's elegant seafront promenade, Terrazza Mascagni
Livorno's elegant seafront promenade, Terrazza Mascagni
Travel tip:

Livorno is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence, with a population of almost 160,000. Although it is a large commercial port with much related industry, it has many attractions, including an elegant sea front – the Terrazza Mascagni - an historic centre – the Venetian quarter – with canals, and a tradition of serving excellent seafood.

Check TripAdvisor to find a Livorno hotel

More reading:

How the Vajont Dam Disaster claimed up to 2,500 victims

Italy's worst earthquake devastates Messina and Reggio Calabria

The last eruption of Vesuvius

Also on this day:

(Picture credits: plaque to victims by Piergiuliano Chesi; Terrazza Mascagni by Luca Aless; via Wikimedia Commons)

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