In the late evening of April 10, 1991, a significant incident unfolded when the Moby Prince, an Italian passenger ferry, collided with another vessel, leading to an oil-fueled fire erupting on the deck of the Moby Prince. In response to the alarming situation, the crew swiftly called for assistance and promptly guided the passengers to a designated fireproof room.
The proximity of the Moby Prince to a Port Authority base provided a glimmer of hope, as the fire appeared to be spreading relatively slowly. It seemed highly probable that rescue would arrive quickly to avert disaster.
However, as the minutes ticked away, the anticipated help did not materialize.
Regrettably, the fire that ravaged the Moby Prince would later be recognized as one of the most catastrophic maritime disasters in the annals of Italian history. The magnitude of the tragedy can be attributed, at least in part, to a series of minute human errors and a heart-wrenching miscommunication.
What Was the Moby Prince and What Happened to It?
Constructed in 1967 at a shipyard near Liverpool, England, the Moby Prince originally served under the operation of a Dutch company, plying the route between Harwich and Hook of Holland.
However, in 1984, the vessel underwent a change of ownership when it was purchased by NAVARMA, an Italian shipping company renowned for its extensive network of routes connecting the mainland and islands of France and Italy.
On the fateful day of the disaster, the Moby Prince embarked on a scheduled journey from Livorno, often referred to as “Leghorn” in English, to Olbia in Sardinia. This voyage typically spanned a duration of just under seven hours, with favorable weather conditions prevailing on that particular day.
With a modest passenger count of 75, joining the existing complement of 66 crew members, the ferry operated well below its maximum capacity of accommodating 850 individuals. Thus, the service was relatively tranquil.
At precisely 22:03, the Moby Prince set sail from Livorno, following its customary course out of the harbor. All appeared to be proceeding without incident. However, before it could fully navigate beyond the confines of the harbor, a collision ensued with another vessel that was anchored nearby.
The second ship involved in the collision was the Agip Abruzzo, a tanker ship laden with thousands of tons of crude oil.
The collision occurred when the Moby Prince abruptly changed her course, giving almost no time for any nearby vessel to accommodate the passage of a ship her size. As the collision occurred, the prow of the Moby Prince forcefully penetrated the Agip Abruzzo’s number seven tank, resulting in a substantial release of oil that sprayed onto both vessels and spilled into the surrounding water.
Temporarily entangled by the impact, the captain of the Agip Abruzzo skillfully maneuvered the ship to disengage from the Moby Prince. However, this maneuver inadvertently caused further expulsion of oil from the ruptured tank, exacerbating the already dire situation.
Despite successfully retaining control of their vessel after the collision, the crew of the Agip Abruzzo faced a contrasting fate compared to their counterparts on the Moby Prince.
Tragically, the oil that had instantaneously coated the Moby Prince ignited in a swift and devastating manner, transforming the ship’s prow into a blazing inferno. The crew members were compelled to swiftly evacuate the control room, compelled by the urgency of the circumstances.
The need for a hasty escape prevented them from even having the opportunity to disable the engines, leaving the vessel ablaze and continuing its unhindered motion. Slowly spiraling away from the site of the collision, the Moby Prince remained engulfed in an intense conflagration.
The Moby Prince Issues Mayday Calls
As the ferocious blaze forced the crew out of the control room, the atmosphere aboard the passenger ferry descended into chaos. The fire rapidly consumed a significant portion of the deck, rendering the conventional evacuation into life rafts an insurmountable task.
Instead, crew members rallied the passengers together, gathering them in the De Luxe Hall located within the ship’s interior. This particular area had been thoughtfully designed with fireproof walls and doors, providing a measure of safety amidst the unfolding catastrophe.
Meanwhile, the radio operator valiantly attempted to summon aid by repeatedly transmitting distress signals. Unable to reach the fixed radio set in the control room due to the blaze, he resorted to utilizing a portable transmitter.
“Mayday. Mayday,” his urgent calls reverberated over the airwaves. “Moby Prince. Moby Prince. We have collided. Our vessel is engulfed in flames. We require assistance from firemen.” His tone was Increasingly desperate, plaintive, “Mate, if you do not come to our aid, we will all burn. Mayday. Mayday.”
Amidst the relentless advance of the fire, the De Luxe Hall remained an oasis of relative safety within the stricken vessel. Initially, the temperatures within the hall remained tolerable, even as the voracious flames devoured the surrounding structure with each passing moment.
Both the crew and passengers anxiously awaited aid, fully aware that they had only recently departed from the harbor. The belief that rescue was imminent permeated their thoughts, offering a glimmer of hope in their otherwise dire circumstances.
Unbeknownst to those on board the Moby Prince, an immense breakdown in communication was unfolding at that very moment. Unquestionably, rescue teams had been mobilized from the mainland, ostensibly prepared to render assistance.
However, tragically, their attention was entirely focused on the Agip Abruzzo. The tanker, now engulfed in its own inferno, demanded their unwavering efforts to combat and suppress the flames. This harrowing situation diverted crucial resources away from the Moby Prince, the ship where lives teetered on the brink of devastation.
Tragically, due to a grave error in communication, no concerted search efforts were initiated to locate the distressed Moby Prince. The captain of the Agip Abruzzo mistakenly reported that the collision had occurred with a small tugboat rather than a substantial passenger ferry.
Consequently, those at the scene focused on combating the fire and rescuing the approximately 30 crew members aboard the Agip Abruzzo, assuming that the vessel involved in the collision was of lesser significance and carrying only a few individuals.
Although authorities could be alerted by the mayday call transmitted from the Moby Prince, the transmission was feeble and garbled. If it was heard at all, there was a chance the message was misunderstood as a report about the burning Agip Abruzzo.
As a result, the critical distress signal from the Moby Prince went unrecognized or misinterpreted.
The culmination of these severe communication failures yielded a disheartening outcome: no active search was undertaken to locate the Moby Prince. The realization that souls desperately needed rescue aboard the ill-fated vessel never materialized.
It was only after the passage of an hour that the charred remains of the Moby Prince were finally discovered, a haunting testament to the devastating consequences of these communication breakdowns.
The tugboat that accidentally stumbled upon the Moby Prince also served as the savior for the sole survivor of the catastrophic event. Alessio Bertrand, a ship’s boy, exhibited remarkable courage and leapt from the stern of the ship at the onset of the fire. Recognizing the presence of another distressed vessel, the tugboat crew swiftly took action, rescuing Alessio from the perilous waters.
With the belated realization that a larger vessel desperately needed assistance, firefighting boats hastily converged upon the scene. Intense efforts were exerted to extinguish the flames that had engulfed the Moby Prince, while fire hoses were employed to rapidly cool the vessel’s hull.
Eventually, a courageous rescuer boarded the stricken ship and secured a tow line. However, due to the considerable time elapsed, the early hours of the following day were already approaching before any substantial rescue endeavors could be undertaken.
Regrettably, when the rescue operations finally commenced, no survivors were left to save. A grim discovery unfolded as it was revealed that all 140 individuals on board had tragically perished, although not due to the ferocity of the flames.
Instead, their lives were claimed by suffocation, a somber realization that added further sorrow to the devastating outcome of the disaster.
How Did the Moby Prince Disaster Occur?
Upon investigation, it was revealed that as the crew hastily evacuated the control room of the Moby Prince, there had been insufficient time to deactivate the ship’s air conditioning system.
Tragically, as the vessel succumbed to the ravages of the fire, this very system circulated deadly carbon monoxide and other toxic gases into the supposedly safe haven of the De Luxe Hall, suffocating those seeking shelter within its confines.
While most victims were discovered within the fireproofed hall, some bodies were found on the deck itself. Despite the widespread devastation surrounding them, these individuals had remarkably avoided being consumed by the flames.
It was surmised that they initially survived the suffocating fumes within the De Luxe Hall and subsequently attempted to escape, only to be overwhelmed by the searing heat radiating from the ship’s hull as they endeavored to traverse the deck.
A significant revelation emerged from the discovery of a videotape amidst the ruins of the De Luxe Hall. The recording served as corroborative evidence, indicating that the heat and toxic fumes within the shelter had been tolerable for almost an hour.
If the distress call of the radio operator had been heard, if the Moby Prince had been promptly located, and if rescue efforts had been expedited, there exists a compelling likelihood that the majority of those on board could have been saved from the harrowing fate that befell them.
Theories About Events That Led to the Moby Prince Disaster
In the aftermath of the Moby Prince disaster, a comprehensive investigation was initiated to ascertain the causes and contributing factors of the tragic incident. However, the investigation proved to be complex, yielding few definitive conclusions.
One factor that was initially considered as a potential cause of the collision was poor visibility caused by localized fog. However, there were conflicting accounts from qualified witnesses who asserted that visibility on the night of the collision was clear. This discrepancy created ambiguity and hindered a conclusive determination regarding the impact of visibility conditions.
Similarly, questions arose regarding the positioning of the Agip Abruzzo, with suggestions that it may have been anchored in an unauthorized zone. Nevertheless, conflicting reports and incomplete information prevented a definitive conclusion from being reached on this particular matter.
Reports suggesting that the crew of the Moby Prince had been distracted by the broadcast of a football match circulated in the media. However, this notion was discredited following inquiries and questioning of the lone survivor, Alessio Bertrand.
An intriguing speculation emerged, proposing that military vessels might have been conducting maneuvers in the vicinity during the time of the collision. Some theorized that clandestine ship movements could have caused the Moby Prince to deviate from its intended course and collide with the tanker.
In September 2022, a significant development occurred in investigating the Moby Prince disaster, as a parliamentary inquiry shed new light on the incident. According to the inquiry’s findings, it was revealed that a third vessel had been involved in one of Italy’s most devastating maritime accidents.
The report stated that the collision between the Moby Prince and the Agip Abruzzo oil tanker occurred due to the sudden appearance of this third ship, which caused the ferry to execute a left turn leading to the accident.
Recognizing the need for a more thorough examination of the Moby Prince disaster, Italy’s parliament reopened the probe in July of the previous year. The decision to do so was prompted by the realization that the initial investigations conducted immediately after the incident had failed to identify the precise causes of the disaster or result in any convictions.
The parliament’s decision aimed to rectify the gaps and limitations of the previous investigations, seeking a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that led to the tragic collision and its aftermath.
After the Moby Prince disaster, the charred hull of the ship remained moored in Leghorn until 17th May 1998, when it eventually sank. The remnants of the vessel, now rusty and ravaged by the fire, were later salvaged from the seabed and towed to Aliağa, Turkey, where it underwent the process of scrapping.
The sinking of the Moby Prince marked a tragic milestone for the Italian merchant marine. It stood as the most devastating maritime catastrophe for the country’s merchant navy since the conclusion of World War II.
The Mystery of the Third Ship in the Moby Prince Disaster
In 2008, new information came to light regarding the presence of another ship named Theresa at the scene of the Moby Prince disaster. However, the extent of Theresa’s involvement in the incident remains unclear.
A mysterious audio recording, discovered in 1991, added intrigue to the investigation. Recorded at 22:45, shortly after the collision, the recording featured a voice in English stating, “This is Theresa, this is Theresa for the Ship One in Livorno anchorage. I’m moving out; I’m moving out…”
Surprisingly, no ship named Theresa was registered in the harbor records, leaving unanswered questions about the identity of the vessel and the nature of the “Ship One” mentioned in the recording.
The presence of US naval vessels or other military ships in the vicinity of the disaster remains a subject of uncertainty. Radio recordings and verbal accounts from the time of the collision suggest the likelihood of unregistered ships being present.
Reports repeatedly mentioned the presence of US Navy ships and military vessels from other nations, but the true nature of their presence, identities, and activities remains unknown. The proximity of Camp Darby, a US military base, made it common for American ships to visit the harbor.
It was not unusual for undercover military ships to operate in the area or for false identities to be used when engaged in covert military operations. There are claims that the arms traffic in the Leghorn harbor might be connected to the disaster, potentially explaining the covert ship movements and the challenges encountered when seeking official documents from military commands.
These revelations regarding the involvement of the ship Theresa, the presence of unidentified ships, and the potential connection to military activities and arms trafficking further complicate the understanding of the Moby Prince disaster, highlighting the intricate and still unresolved aspects of the incident.
Due to the multitude of uncertainties surrounding the Moby Prince disaster, assigning clear responsibility for the tragedy proved almost impossible. Various individuals, including crew members from the Agip Abruzzo and members of the Port Authority, faced charges in connection with the incident.
However, as the investigation progressed, all charges were eventually dropped, or those accused were absolved of any wrongdoing. The lack of definitive answers and the absence of justice left a lasting impact on the public consciousness.
Many people believe that crucial questions remain unanswered and that those responsible have evaded proper punishment.
While the complete truth regarding every aspect of the Moby Prince disaster may never be fully known, one fact remains undeniable: the catastrophe resulted from a series of small errors that had devastating consequences.
A missed mayday call, an inaccurate collision report, and the misdirection of rescue efforts towards the wrong vessel all played a role. The outcome could have been dramatically different if any of these mistakes had been avoided.
The destruction of the Moby Prince stands as a tragic reminder of how close it came to being prevented entirely, highlighting the immense impact that seemingly minor errors can have in shaping the course of events.
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