Italian Court Convicts Captain and Two Others in 2014 Norman Atlantic Fire

Norman Atlantic
Hulk of the Norman Atlantic after the devastating 2014 fire (Gatto Celiaco photo/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Published Oct 10, 2023 3:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

Nine years after the tragic fire that claimed the lives of at least 31 people aboard the ro-ro Norman Atlantic, an Italian court has convicted and jailed the captain, chief engineer, and one crewmember on charges related to the firefight and evacuation. They got off on the charges of manslaughter, however, due to the status of limitations, and prospectors failed in their case against the ship’s owner and operator.

The prosecution of the entire crew of the Norman Atlantic, Carlo Visentini as the shipowner and head of the Italian shipping company Visemar di Navigazione, and ANEK Lines of Greece as the charterer began in November 2022. Prosecutors had sought manslaughter charges as well as charges related to the botched evacuation and poor firefighting leading to the deaths and the shipwreck.

The Norman Atlantic, a 26,900 ton, ro-ro ferry built in 2009 and owned by Visemar, was operating under charter to ANEK. It departed from Patras in Western Greece and during the overnight transit to Ancona, Italy a fire broke out early on the morning of December 28, 2014. Investigators said that the ship was loaded with 43 trucks but it only had 40 electrical connections, so three trucks had left their motors running, which was illegal under maritime law and believed to have been the cause of the fire.

Prosecutors further argued that the firefight and evacuation were chaotic. They said the crew initially had started the firefight on the wrong deck giving the fire additional time to spread on the vessel. Passengers said they were left to their own accord and not instructed by the crew. Some passengers inflated rafts and evacuated the ship despite a storm and rough seas. They were rescued by other ships in the area before an international effort was organized to evacuate the ship. Passengers also alleged that some crewmembers had left the ship early in the fire.

Prosecutors argued to the court that the evacuation was conducted “completely wrong.” They told the court that they believed if the crew had performed their duties and properly handled the evacuation, “everyone could have been saved.” The exact number of people killed remains uncertain because the ship had multiple stowaways. In addition, two crewmembers from a tugboat sent to bring the hulk to port were killed when a towline parted.

The court convicted Captain Argilio Giacomazzi and sentenced him to six years in prison on charges of negligence in the shipwreck. Gianluca Assante, the first engineer on the vessel was also convicted on similar charges and received a sentence of five years and four months in prison. Francesco Nardulli, one of the crewmembers, was sentenced to three years in prison while the court acquitted or dismissed charges against 29 other defendants. Due to the statute of limitations, the court dismissed the manslaughter charges against the captain and crewmembers.

The court acquitted Carlo Visentini saying that the evidence was of not having committed the crimes related to the shipwreck. Visemar and ANEK were also acquitted by the Court of Bari, Italy, with the court finding there were no grounds for a second trial for ANEK which had previously been found guilty in Greece. The charterer was sentenced to 16 years in prison by a Greek court but it was reduced to five years due to statutes and finally converted into a €36,000 fine. 

Civil parties suing for compensation had largely withdrawn from the court case. Lawyers noted that they were able to seize approximately €2 million from the shipowner during the trial which was used as compensation.

Prosecutors told the Italian media that they were satisfied with the sentences while expressing regret over the status of limitations. They said the case highlighted shortcomings in the Italian system which was not compatible with the nature of the crimes.

Top photo of the burnt out vessel by Gatto CeliacoCC BY-SA 4.0 license