The crash of Jolly Nero

Note: a few days ago (May 7, 2013) a cargo ship named “Jolly Nero” crashed into the port of Genova, destroying a tower and killing nine people (with nine more injured). The tower was the traffic control center of the port. This post is a translation of an article written by Cristiano Pugno, a friend and fellow blogger from Genova. The photo of the control tower is also from Mr. Pugno, who’s a professional photographer.

From now on, this is by Mr. Pugno.

Meanwhile I’m writing this post they are still looking in the muddy waters of Genova’s port for the last missing victim. I hope that the body will be found shortly in order to give the last rites to the nine victims of this accident.

Now I can’t stand anymore reading about a tragedy that “could be avoided”, that “is inexplicable”. It have to be explained, in order to avoid any more. First thing to be understood is the reason why the ship cannot perform that forward movement that could save the pilot’s tower from destruction. The “Jolly Nero” was built in 1975 as “Axel Maersk”. It has been extended twice, it has been used as a support ship in the first Gulf War, it has been used to transport battle tanks. Always with the same engine, a Danish Burmeister & Wain, one of the best in the world: a two-step engine, reversible. That means that when it comes to step back you have to quit the engine, reverse the rotation spin and restart. It takes a matter of seconds and you’re done with it. Safe and reliable, these are the perfect choice for an engine, for the performance, for a cargo ship. Even a 40-years old engine is reliable if the maintenance is done by the book. The “Jolly Nero” maintenance, according to RINA (*), has been regularly done. Now we know that the engine telegraph was out-of-order, a key factor. It’s quite possible that the valve that is used for the immission of compressed air, useful for the engine start process, just “jumped” blocking the start of the engine after the change of rotation spin.

This is not the real problem, a mechanical failure may happen. Experts says that in the reversible engines that may happen. What I cannot stand for is the way everybody is inclined to ignore that this disgrace is origined by a low safety culture.

The safety concept is to considered before you start to imagine a project, that’s called intrinsic safety, that’s the sum of factors about any building / system is safe regardless human behavior and/or external factors. Let’s think about it. Command and control centers, the likes of an airport, of a nuclear power plant or of a port are the very heart of a complex system and have to be full operational 24/7 in any condition. Was this tower up to the task?


1) The position of the tower

Even if the position of this tower has been chosen in order to ensure maximum visibility why it has been built so near the edge of the quay, so the windows at the top were up the water level? That was vulnerable, even for a small hit. If the tower’s position was ten meters from the quay edge the crash of the “Jolly Nero” will be without casualties. In the 1995 (the year this tower was built) didn’t anybody that the ships were getting bigger and taller?

2) The realization of the tower

A 52-meters tall concrete-built structure, no external staircase. With an external staircase maybe the victims won’t get trapped inside the elevator that dropped down into the sea. Even a fire was more than enough to block this tower.

3) No disaster recovery site

The Italian media spoked at length about the finding of the voice recorder units. The same units were inside the same building where the recording system was operative. Anybody who have to ensure data safety knows for sure that backups are not to be in the same site with the main data sets. Does a disaster recovery strategy cost that much?

4) No alternatives left

After the crash, in order to ensure traffic coordination, a patrol ship from the Coast Guard has to be put on berth to set up a radio traffic control and resume operations with the ports of Savona and La Spezia with a particular attention to the SAR controls. Nobody set up a contingency plan (for a terrorist attack, a fire, an earthquake and so on) in order to substitute the main control center with an alternative solution.

These three questions and many more have to be considered by the project managers, before the start of the project. I think that they care about an elegant structure, with a lesser visual impact on the seaside, that do not block the visual panoramic patterns. Unfortunately in Italy a real safety culture is still to be developed, what it takes are papers and authorizations. Who knows when we will improve?

(*) RINA is an acronym for Italian Naval Register, the authority that take care for safety controls and the respect of national and international technical dispositions about ships.


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