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Italian Prosecutors Seek Manslaughter Charges for Norman Atlantic Fire

The ferry Norman Atlantic on fire
Image courtesy Marina Militare

Published Nov 16, 2022 9:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

Italian prosecutors in the port city of Bari have begun presenting their indictment against the owner, operator and crew of the Norman Atlantic, the ro/pax ferry that caught fire and burned in the Adriatic in late 2014. An estimated 31 people were killed in the blaze, though the precise number of fatalities is uncertain because an unknown number of stowaways were aboard. 

At about 0415 hours on December 28, 2014, a fire alarm sounded on a vehicle deck aboard the Norman Atlantic as she transited the Strait of Taranto. A crewmember was dispatched to investigate, and he reported that a reefer trailer "was making smoke." The officers on watch concluded that this was not an issue, according to prosecutors.

At 0430, a major fire broke out on the same deck, with flames emerging from hatches out the starboard side. Efforts to use the fixed firefighting sprinkler system were ineffective, and the fire quickly burned out comms and electrical cables running through the hold, taking out all power and all electronic links with the engine room. Flames emerging from the starboard side burned the rescue boat and the disembarkation chute, leaving port side lifesaving equipment only. 

In rough weather, passengers began to launch and board the vessel's life rafts on their own initiative, without the captain's orders. Most survived thanks to a mass rescue operation: Between a dozen good samaritan ships, multiple rescue vessels and no less than 16 SAR helicopter crews, 452 people were rescued from the water and from the deck of the ship. 

After the casualty, Italian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into the cause of the fire and the response. Some of the surviving passengers reported members of the crew leaving the ship early on in the response; others reported that there had been no crew present to instruct them when they were preparing to launch life rafts. 

After a two-year inquiry, investigating judge Alessandra Piliego concluded that the fire started in the generator of a reefer van. The hold where the fire started had 40 reefer outlets and 43 reefer trucks, and three of the trucks were running their generators, according to the report - even though this was not permitted under way. In addition, her team found that the crew activated the firefighting sprinkler system on the wrong deck, with no effect on the fire. Only three out of 19 crewmembers on the muster list had taken up their official listed duties, and some were not aware of their roles after the fact. 

"The evacuation operations were all wrong. Proper execution could have saved everyone on board," prosecutor Federico Capano told a court in the town of Bari on Tuesday. In an indictment, Capano and his colleagues laid out serious charges against the shipowner, the charterer and the vessel's master. Carlo Visentini, the head of shipowner Visemar di Navigazione; Yannis Vardinoyannis, billionaire Green shipping magnate and part-owner of charterer Anek Lines; and Capt. Argilio Giacomazzi all face charges of multiple manslaughter, with a recommended sentence of eight years each. Other members of the crew face manslaughter charges in connection with the disaster, but with shorter recommended sentences. 

Vardinoyannis was convicted of a similar negligent manslaughter charge in Greece last year in connection with the Norman Atlantic fire, and he was sentenced to a nominal 16 years in prison (limited to five by statute and convertible to a fine). The sentence was reduced to probation in March 2022.