Pier crash in Venice sparks demonstrations

Cruise ship in Venice
A cruise ship in Venice. Photo Credit: MikeMike10/Shutterstock

Like a stick thrust into a hornet's nest, the June 2 crash of a runaway MSC Opera into a pier has stirred up the long-running and emotional debate about how to host cruise ships in Venice.

A crowd estimated at between 3,000 and 6,000 protested in St. Marks Square on Saturday, June 8. A day later, scores of small boats and kayaks joined a protest regatta. Notably, it was the first time since 1997 that authorities had allowed a demonstration in the city's historic main plaza.

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A 65,000-ton cruise ship blared an urgent horn as it made a beeline toward a busy Venetian dock, sending panicked onlookers running for safety. Video showed the moment the 2,100-passenger MSC Opera bumped a nearby river boat early Sunday morning before slamming into the wharf in the San Basilio Terminal on the Giudecca Canal. A deep thud and then the sound of shattering glass could be heard as the vessel scrapped along the quay and passersby shouted instructions to flee the rogue cruise ship. #Repost @toto_bergamo_rossi with @get_repost ・・・ It can happen in Venice too. Check the video! We must stop this nightmare! Thank God it was at the port of Venice and not in San Marco square #venice #venezia #cruiseship #nightmare #venetianheritage @venetianheritage @sbucci #mibac #nograndinavi #catastrofi @unesco #danger @porto_di_venezia #portodivenezia #stopthisshit #stop #savevenice #venicecruise

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Protesters railed, as they have for a decade, against big ships in the Venice Lagoon.  

Tommaso Cacciari, a demonstration organizer, said of cruise ships, "What happened shows they're dangerous, they're out of control in case of failure, and they can't continue to play Russian roulette with our homes, our lives, with our city, just to make these cruise companies rich."

For protesters, the crash added safety to a long list of complaints about cruise ships. For the cruise industry, it is an outlier. 

"Accidents are just that, accidents," said John Stoll, vice president of land programs for Crystal Cruises. "I feel confident the authorities will take rapid action."

While that may prove true for technical issues on the MSC ship, it has not been the case with respect to decisions about how best to accommodate the growing number and size of ships calling in Venice.

A solution proposed two years ago that would remove ships from the Giudecca Canal, where the MSC Opera mishap occurred, has been sidetracked while politicians at the national level dithered, said Filippo Olivetti, managing director of the Bassani Group, a Venice port agent and destination management firm. 

"We have been sitting for almost eight years after the Costa Concordia's accident listening to any kind of exploitation and bizarre solution, waiting for the central government to make a decision on one of the alternatives that were submitted by the local institutions," Olivetti said. "The central Italian government has now the opportunity to solve once and for all this endless issue. Let's see if they really are the 'government of change' as they pretended to be since they were established."

As a major cog in the cruise business, the Bassani Group was part of a constellation of local institutions, including regional and Venetian governments, that came up with the plan to redirect cruise ships away from the city center.

The plan would divert the largest ships to a new terminal in industrial Marghera, directly adjacent to Venice on the mainland. Midsize vessels would continue to dock at the Venice Maritime Station, but they would travel a new route, entering the lagoon at the Malamocco rather than the Lido opening and transiting an enlarged Vittorio Emanuele Canal.

Olivetti said the plan would have balanced the environmental and safety improvements with economic concerns. CLIA endorses the plan, and MSC Cruises said it supports CLIA's position.

"CLIA urges all parties in Venice to reach a conclusion to start the preparation work to prepare the Vittorio Emanuele Canal so we can begin to reroute the larger ships," a CLIA statement said.

But the MSC Opera malfunction has increased the momentum behind two other plans that bar cruise ships from the lagoon altogether.

One plan promoted by minister of infrastructure and of transport Danilo Toninelli, of the Five Star Movement political party, would build a new terminal outside the Lido entrance to the lagoon. Another would locate it in Chioggia, 16 miles south of Venice.

Olivetti said the Lido terminal would mean the end of homeporting in Venice, which he described as "the real added value for the territory," and limit Venice to transit calls in which a fleet of small tenders would take passengers back and forth between a terminal and the city center.

"The other solution, Chioggia, sounds even more weird," Olivetti said.

Toninelli seems to want to avoid dredging the Vittorio Emanuele Canal, Olivetti said. However, he said the Chioggia site would need 7 million cubic meters of fill to be dredged in order to enable cruise ships to get to the piers. 

"And Chioggia lies in the middle of the Venice Lagoon," he said.

Following the MSC Opera incident, Venice officials, the port authority, law enforcement and Ministry of Interior officials met and affirmed their desire to implement the Marghera/Vittorio Emanuele plan. 

They are also seeking a list of the ships that can navigate the Vittorio Emanuele Canal without new dredging. 

The exact cause of the MSC Opera crash, which also damaged the Uniworld river cruise ship River Countess, remains under investigation, and MSC had to cancel a scheduled June 8 departure as a result; the River Countess' sailings were canceled until July.

A statement from MSC cited a "technical issue" for the ship's inability to stop. Numerous cellphone videos captured the immensity of the 65,000-gross-ton ship as it slowly crushed the bow of the River Countess and, horn blaring, scraped along the pier. 

Olivetti, whose firm handles both MSC and Uniworld in Venice, said he was on the pier within 30 minutes of the incident and saw firsthand the efforts of crews from both ships and port emergency officials.

"I got back to my home later that day shocked for this unbelievable accident but at the same time proud to see so many people reacting in such an amazing and fearless way," Olivetti said.

Though four people suffered minor injuries, no one was killed in the incident.

Toninelli and others have said they expect to announce a plan for cruise ships in Venice, perhaps as early as the end of June.

Crystal Cruises' Stoll said it is important that Italian officials get it right.

"They're trying to get to the point where they know how to protect the safety and security of passengers," Stoll said. "Venice is a very popular area, and it remains important to the cruise community that Venice remains a viable port."

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