GENOA, Italy—Nine people were feared dead on Wednesday after a container ship crashed in Italy’s busiest port of Genoa, bringing down a 50-meter (164-foot) control tower in an accident that revived memories of last year’s Costa Concordia cruise ship disaster.
The Jolly Nero plowed into the dock in the night during a standard maneuver as it was being steered to exit the port on its way to Naples with a cargo of industrial vehicles and containers.
Some of the victims were thrown into the water, while others were trapped in the tower’s lift, which plunged into the sea, emergency workers said.
“Seven people died, four were injured and two are missing,” Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi told parliament after visiting the scene of the tragedy.
Earlier media reports that a 50-year-old man, a telephone operator, had been pulled alive from the rubble on Wednesday were not confirmed.
Lupi said there were three possible explanations for the accident: engine failure, a problem with cables used by the two tug boats towing the ship, or bad steering and excessively high speed.
Prosecutors have placed the ship’s captain and a port pilot who had been on board during the maneuver under investigation for multiple manslaughter and have sequestered the ship.
Prosecutor Michele Di Lecce said investigators were also looking into a possible charge of “attack on transport security” since the control tower oversaw maritime operations for the entire Liguria region of northwest Italy.
“We do not exclude that other people could be placed under investigation,” he said.
The Jolly Nero was following protocol by navigating toward the control tower and should have then turned into the open sea to its next port of call but it instead hit the shore.
The crash carried echoes of the Costa Concordia tragedy last year in which 32 people were killed when a luxury liner crashed into a Tuscan island.
The Costa Concordia had been performing a risky “salute” maneuver close to the island of Giglio and six people face charges of manslaughter including the captain, Francesco Schettino.
Initial reports suggested the Jolly Nero, built in 1976, had suffered a mechanical failure.
“We do not know much about what caused it. It is so unexpected that it is inexplicable. It was a routine maneuver,” Daniele Bo, spokesman for the ship’s owner Ignazio Messina & Co, told AFP.
The company’s fleet has been involved in a series of incidents around the world in recent years, including in South Africa and Egypt.
A report by Il Fatto Quotidiano daily said the company’s ships had been tied to episodes of toxic waste trafficking in the past.
The falling tower crushed two adjacent office buildings in the port—which sees 6,600 ships transit each year, carrying a total of more than 50 million tons of cargo.
The ship was being steered by an on-board pilot and two tug boats, one in front and one behind, but Lupi stressed the captain still has ultimate responsibility during port maneuvres.
A port worker involved in the incident was quoted anonymously by Genoa’s local daily Il Secolo XIX as saying: “Two engines seem to have failed and we lost control of the ship.”
The Italian ship, which was relatively undamaged, is almost 200 meters (655 feet) long, 30 meters wide, and has a gross tonnage of over 40,500.
The ship’s owner, Stefano Messina, choked back tears as he told journalists at the scene of the crash: “We are all utterly shocked. Nothing like this has ever happened before, we are distraught.”
Rescue divers were still searching the inky waters around the port. Others were using dogs trained to find people in earthquake zones to see if any survivors might be trapped under the rubble.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano expressed his “solidarity with the families of the victims.”
Prime Minister Enrico Letta expressed his “shock.”
The accident happened during a shift change in the vast control tower, which bent over by 45 degrees before collapsing on to neighboring buildings, leaving only an emergency staircase standing.
Genoa mayor Marco Doria said Italians were in mourning after this “very serious port accident which has struck an entire city”—where shipping is an ancient tradition and the main employer.—Giuseppe Cacace