Having made a living out of kayaking in Venice, whenever accidents happen on the water it always leaves an impression. This time so much more as the accident left an innocent tourist dead.
The accident happened on August 17th just before noon, at the Rialto bridge, in a spot we very often use to take photos of the participants of our kayaking tour in the city.
One of our tours had passed the exact spot half an hour earlier.
The precise dynamics of the event is not totally clear, but it most likely went like this. A vaporetto (water bus) came upstream towards the bridge in the direction of the station, on the left side of the canal as if should (of you’re facing downstream). Something, allegedly a gondola, caused it to divert towards the middle of the canal just before it reached the Rialto bridge.
Another vaporetto which had just passed the bridge moving downstream, was consequently forced to move further to the right, even if it had to stop at a platform on the left, where the other vaporetto was. It therefore ended up too far down the canal and had to back up to get back in position to moor at its designated platform. There might have been other boats involved here too.
Backing up the vaporetto hit a gondola that was waiting at a blue platform just at the foot of the bridge on the right. Apparently the gondolier had stopped there waiting for traffic to ease up a bit before continuing downstream.
The vaporetto squeezed the gondola against the platform, the passengers fell over and the gondolier was either pushed off the gondola (he’s higher up than the others) or he jumped ship.
The passengers were a German family, parents and three children. The youngest, a girl of three years, were badly hurt in the face, and her father, in some desperate attempt to help his blood covered daughter, got squeezed between the gondola and the vaporetto.
The vaporetto moved forward once it’s path had cleared, apparently without the conductor noticing anything unusual.
The area is usually crowded, lots of people standing on the Rialto bridge and along the shores of the Grand Canal saw everything, and some rushed to help and others called 112.
Ambulances, fire brigade and police were there in minutes, but for Joachim Reinhardt Vogel, 50 years, university professor from Thüringen, there was no help possible. He died in the gondola, a few metres from the Rialto bridge.
This should never have happened. Talking a gondola ride should be perfectly safe for children and adults alike.
From what I hear it has been at least twenty years since the last fatal accident involving a gondola. There have been a handful of gondola capsizes in the last few years but nobody has been hurt.
Naturally the blame game started immediately. Its always somebody else’s fault.
First three conductors of vaporettos were formally informed that they we’re under investigating.
Initially the gondolier was seen as a victim, after all he was hit by a backing vaporetto, and had seemingly done the right thing, trying to wait for the heavy traffic to sort itself out.
He disappeared from view and the Ente Gondola, the organisation representing the gondoliers, spoke on his behalf. He is 25 years old, has a gondola licence for a couple of years, which he acquired from his father, and he was described as an expert oarsman. Basically a hard working young man, who was so deeply chocked that he wouldn’t and couldn’t appear in public.
However, soon witnesses said that he had jumped off the gondola even before the impact, abandoning his passengers to their fate, and worse, he tested positive for hashish and cocaine, taken the same morning or at most, the evening before.
So, the gondolier also ended up under investigation. Likewise did another gondolier, who by doing a reckless manoeuvre might have caused the first vaporetto to get in the way of the second which then backed into the gondola.
Even if no taxis were involved directly in the accident, there were several in the area, and as everybody who moves around Venice in a boat will know, they’re the worst offenders with regard to reckless manoeuvres, speeding and making waves. Consequently, a lot of fingers were pointed in that direction.
The association of taxi conductors wisely kept their mouths shut.
A favourite pastime of most Venetians is to blame the municipal administration for everything, and in this case they’ve been blamed for not enforcing the already existing speed limits of 5 km/h, and for favouring public transport when regulating traffic, since the vaporettos are run by a municipal company.
Just to add a bit of flavour to the whole affair, it appeared that the blue platform that the gondola got squeezed against, belonging to the Magistrato alle Acque, a state institution managing water resources, didn’t have the necessary legal permit to be there.
That caused the debate to extend to the multitude of docks and platforms and various moorings along the Canal Grande, which cause it to narrow by a much as 25m in places.
What to do
Something will have to be done.
The city council have come up with a plan that will somehow take something away from everybody, so nobody have any excuses.
Nobody really wants to give up anything.
The 26 point plan includes among other things a separation of traffic, so garbage collection and goods deliveries to shop and hotels will have to be made between 4am and mid-morning, while the gondolas will be disallowed circulating in that same period.
Taxis will not be allowed to run empty on the middle part of the Canal Grande, around the Rialto Bridge, and they will not be allowed to run caravans with large groups of tourists in the same area.
The two vaporetto lines running the Canal Grande (one fast and one slow) will be united into one line with a frequency of every 4-5 minutes, compared with every 6 minutes now for the slower line 1 and every 10 minutes for the faster line 2. This should reduce congestion and dangerous manoeuvres around the platforms, and remove the situations where one vaporetto overtakes another.
Vaporetto don’t have bow thrusters or rear cameras, but its only recommended that it’ll be examined if something can be done.
Platforms used by gondolas, taxis and vaporettos will be physically separated by moving sometimes one of them, sometimes another. The danger spots are here a canal close to the Rialto, much used by gondolas, but entering the Canal Grande just between two vaporetto platforms, often leading to dangerous situations; and a similar situation neat the Hotel Danieli close to San Marco, again with gondolas moving about inbetween vaporetto stops.
The concessions for private docks and moorings in the Canal Grande will all be reviewed and retracted if there is no benefit to the public good from the docks and moorings.
Private motor boats will be disallowed between 6am and noon.
Obligatory test for use of drugs and alcohol by all people working with passenger transportation by boat. This is already done for the vaporetto personnel, since they’re employees, but not for taxi drivers and gondoliers, as they’re self-employed. The Italian laws presently doesn’t allow for such enforced tests of self-employed persons.
There will be two fixed points of presence by the municipal police at Rialto and at the Punto della Dogana.
One of the main elements of proof for the investigation into the causes of the accident is video footage from a system called Argo.
The entire Canal Grande has been under complete real-time video surveillance since 2009. For a while there was even a web site where you could follow traffic on the Canal Grande, with little red and green arrows for the boats, depending on whether they were speeding or not.
This system has been out of order in periods, and due to privacy reasons it is been mostly unused for regulation of traffic. The city tried to use it against some taxis caught speeding some time ago, but its use as proof was refused by the court.
Still, the images and videos exist, and they’ve been used to analyse the situation on the Canal Grande running up to the accident, which is what got the second gondolier in trouble.
From the surveillance it appears that some 4000 vessels pass under the Rialto bridge every day. As traffic is not evenly spread out over the 24 hours, it means that there can be a dozen or more boats just around the bend of the canal under the Rialto, which is also the narrowest part of the Canal Grande.
Recently the city has held a meeting with the ombudsman for privacy protection, to make sure that the Argo system can be used to regulate traffic and enforce rules in the future.
What will likely be done
The city administration tries to negotiate with the different groups, but leaving out some, like the private boat users who have no collective representation. This, of course, just fuels the pointing fingers.
The Ente Gondola representing the gondoliers, insist that they’re the weak ones in traffic, and also one of them the victim of the accident, so they don’t see any need to make compromises. Their claim is that the existing rules, most notably the speed limit of 5 km/h, just need to be stricter enforced.
The taxi drivers mostly keep their mouths shut, which is probably wise as they’re the number one problem of water traffic in the city, even if they weren’t directly involved in the accident.
The public transport company and the vaporetto personnel claim that they’re the only agents actually delivering a real public service, and that any cut in services will cause a deterioration of the quality of life for the real Venetians, and also for the tourists.
The goods haulers claim that prices will go up by at least 30% if they’re forced to do deliveries in the very early morning.
The garbage collection company also announced that garbage collection by night would cost at least 30% more, and the city administration changed the plan before going public.
The private boat users have been up in arms, but as they lack a collective representations, its mostly just roaring on Facebook.
Its going to be a hot autumn for boating people in Venice, but most likely very little will ever change.