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Oil Tanker Fire


from FIREHOUSE, October 1979

The ship was longer than three football stadiums lined end to end. She was valued at $45 million and carried 270,000 tons of hazardous crude oil. Her name was the Atlantic Empress and when she collided with the Aegean Captain, another fully laden supertanker, on July 19, the result was catastrophe: the worst oil tanker spill in history and a blaze that took firefighters over two weeks to extinguish.

The 1,066-foot Atlantic Express was sailing from Saudi Arabia to Beaumont, Texas, and the 1,086-foot Aegean Captain had been en route to Singapore from the island of Aruba in the Lesser Antilles. The tankers met in the Caribbean, 18 miles east of the resort island of Tobago, and 100 miles northeast of Venezuela. Driving rain and thick fog reduced visibility, and 600 yards before they sighted each other.

At 7:15 P.M., they impacted, the Empress tearing a gaping hole in the Captain's starboard bow. Flames and oil burst from the tankers, with thick smoke pouring from the Captain's forward deck. The holocaust was beyond the capacity of shipboard firefighting teams and equipment, and both crews abandoned ship, leaving their vessels to the fire. Within 24 hours firefighters from the Tobago/Trinidad Coast Guard had contained the blaze on the Aegean Captain, and the crew had returned to the ship, which was then moved away. The flaming Atlantic Empress posed a more difficult challenge, though.

On the day after the collision, Mobil Oil, which owned the Empress' cargo, brought in a five-man oil disaster crew to work with local officials and Tobago/ Trinidad Coast Guard firefighters. Two tugs maneuvered near the burning ship in an attempt to fix drag-lines and tow it to sea. Burning oil extended 200 yards to one side of the Empress, and the plan was to separate the ship from the burning oil, thus decreasing the chance of an oil slick polluting Tobago's beaches by taking the boat further out to sea. Finally, with flames and oil pouring from her side, the Atlantic Empress was towed away.

On the next day, however, the fire was still out of control and the tanker began to drift slowly westward, 15 miles northwest of Tobago. Flames crackled over two-thirds of the ship as firefighters attacked from fireboats with water and foam. Extinguishment was hampered by a brisk, southwesterly wind that fed the flames, and by the widening oil slick that spread the fire. By the evening of July 21, a 100 square-mile area was covered with crude and napthalene. The fringes of the slick were only five miles from Tobago's coast. The five knots an hour current now threatened to bring the oil to the beaches. Residents of a nearby coastal community were also complaining that soot from the burning boats had fouled their supply of drinking water.

Officials began assembling resources to combat the oil slick: a Tobago/Trinidad Coast Guard vessel equipped to spray chemical dispersants on the slick: four planes and five boats with dispersants: and two special Amoco Trinidad spray boats. The combat plan involved the ships and aircraft attacking from opposite ends, spraying the emulsifying dispersants on the oil. During the night, however, the slick "dissipated tremendously" because of the combined action of wind, water, and, in the morning, sunshine.

Emergency action thus became unnecessary. Meanwhile, the blaze continued on the Atlantic Express. Firefighters attempted only to contain the flames now, and not extinguish them, since it was hoped that the fire would burn off the leaking, polluting crude. The Empress was still leaking on Monday, July 23. The oil slick in her wake was reportedly 60 miles long, but very thin and not much danger to the beaches. Over 20,000 tons of oil had been lost by this time. Mobil hoped to tow the ship further out to sea, extinguish the fire, and then pump the remaining cargo into other tankers, a process that could 'have taken as long as five or six weeks. The plan was never carried out, however. Almost a week after the collision, on July 24, the still-burning Empress, now listing 12 to 15 degrees starboard, experienced a minor explosion that increased the spill.

The next day, a larger blast ripped open another tank and deposited crude in the sea at a rate of 7,000-15,000 gallons an hour (twice the previous ratel. Millions of gallons of oil were then deposited in the sea, burning for half a mile. Firefighters quickly forced the flames. from the bow to an area in front of the stern superstructure. "Oil still streaming from the ship's side is being ignited by flames in the water." one account reported. Firefighters now said that they would stop trying to extinguish the blaze until they could get more chemicals and equipment to the scene. The blaze ended before that could happen.

Two weeks after the collision, the Empress, still in flames, sank on August 3, the biggest commercial tanker to sink in recent years, and the largest amount of crude (275,000 tons) ever lost from a single ship. The cause of the collision is under investigation. Both ships had modern navigation equipment, and it was not clear whether it had malfunctioned or not. Twenty-six of the two ships' 76 crew members, all Greeks, were reported missing and presumed dead, and 50 others were hurried to a Tobago hospital, suffering from severe burns.

The Empress' captain, Paskalis Hatzipetros, had to be flown to Texas for special treatment. He was the last to leave his ship, and was forced to pass through the blaze to escape. As a result, he was unable to speak, apparently having inhaled the flames. Hugh Hinds, national controller of the National Oil Spill, said that the crisis had been well handled.

"If anything further happens," he commented, "we have the resources to tackle it." Local.newspapers were not as optimistic. They praised firefighters and rescue teams, but were critical of other procedures. "We may have escaped this time," said the Trinidad/Tobago Express, "but as an oil-producing and refining country, we are directly in the path of tanker movements and thus (very) vulnerable. The point is not whether it took place within our maritime boundaries, but to determine if our precautions to minimize the possibility of such accidents (in the future) are adequate."


Nine of the 10 largest oil spills in the world have involved tankers. According to an "Oil Spill Intelligence Report" issued by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, the largest spills were:

• Amoco Cadiz. grounded March 16, 1978, at Portsall, France; 223,000 tons spilled.

• The well Ixtoc I, a blowout on June 3, 1979, off Bahia de Campeche, Mexico; up to 210,000 tons spilled and amount is increasing.

• Torrey.Canyon. grounded March 18, 1967, off Land's End, United Kingdom; 119,000 tons spilled.

• Sea Star. collided Dec. 19, 1972, in the Gulf of Oman; 115,000 tons spilled. -

Urquiola. grounded May 12, 1976, at La Coruna, Spain; 100,000 tons spilled.

• Hawaiian Patriot. caught fire Feb. 25,1977, in the North Pacific, west of Honolulu; 99,000 tons spilled.

• Othello. collided March 20, 1970, in Tralhavet Bay, Sweden; 60,000 to 100,000 tons spilled.

• ,Jakob Maersk. grounded Jan. 29, 1975, at Porto de Leixoes, Portugal; 84,000 tons spilled.

• Warm, grounded Feb. 27, 1971, at Cape Agulhas, South Africa; 63,000 tons spilled.

• Epic Colacoproni. stranded in May 1975 in the Caribbean; 57,000 tons spilled.

The report also states that some 206 million gallons of oil (enough to heat 200,000 homes in the Boston area) were spilled in major accidents during 1978.~