The burning Atlantic Empress viewed from a rescue vessel. Photo credit - Hein Hinrichs VLCC Tankers

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Inferno at sea

1979 tanker collision sparks blaze, huge oil spill off Tobago

By Richard Charan Multimedia Editor richard.charan@trinidadexpress.com

THE full extent of the damage being caused to people and places, as a result of the crude oil spill in the Gulf of Paria last month, is still unknown.

State-owned oil company Petrotrin and the politicians have ruled it under control and the coastline almost all clear. The environmentalists are seeing a continuing catastrophe, with long-term implications for the health of coastal communities, wetland, and fisheries from the spillage of 7,500 barrels of oil — the estimated quantity of crude that leaked before it was plugged. The spill is considered the worst in Trinidad and Tobago’s century of oil production.

However, you may be surprised to learn that there was an oil spill in the territorial waters of Trinidad and Tobago, that, 35 years after it happened, is still ranked as among the largest, and deadliest, in history. It was a spill that oil disaster experts fought for weeks, worrying that it would blacken the beaches of Tobago and destroy its coral reefs, environment and economy.

It happened on Thursday, July 19, 1979, in the dark, during a blinding rainstorm, approximately 18 kilometres off the east coast of Tobago. The 331-metre-long supertanker Aegean Captain, carrying 200,000 tonnes of crude oil and a crew of 36, was en route to Singapore from Aruba.

Coming in the opposite direction was the Atlantic Empress supertanker (325 metres, longer than three football fields). This ship was coming from Saudi Arabia and headed to Beaumont, Texas, in the United States, to deliver 276,000 tonnes of crude oil (then worth $45 million). Aboard the tanker was a crew of 70, including three women and a 12-year-old boy.

The total capacity of both ships equalled 3.5 million barrels of oil. The official record is that the ships only detected each other, when half a kilometre apart. They began turning to avoid impact. The enormous size of the vessels made it impossible to change course in time. At 7.15 p.m., the starboard bow of the Aegean Captain was torn open by the impact, setting off fires that could not be controlled by the crews. The ships were abandoned.

Twenty-six people aboard the Atlantic Empress would die. Survivors told of hurling themselves into the sea and swimming under patches of burning oil to get clear of the conflagration. One person aboard the Aegean Captain also died during the evacuation. There is no record of the bodies of the 27 being recovered.

Within 24 hours, a response to the spill was under way. The Clean Caribbean Cooperative, formed by a group of oil companies only four months before to pool resources to fight oil spill pollution, was activated.

Trinidad became the operation’s base. Equipment and the chemicals needed to disperse the oil were brought in by land and by air. Aircraft and ships with spray chemical dispersants were sent to the scene by AMOCO (now BP Trinidad and Tobago), Texaco, and Trintoc (now Petrotrin) while an oil disaster crew was dispatched by Mobil Oil (which owned the Empress’ cargo).

By then, the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, then under the command of now-retired Rear Admiral Richard Kelshall, had already responded to the distress signals, rescuing at least 55 people who abandoned the ships, and brought them to Tobago for treatment at the Scarborough General Hospital. Two needed to be hospitalised for burns. The ships were Liberian-registered and Greek-owned, and many of the seamen were Greeks.

The spill was massive. Reports from the scene were that, two days after the collision, 259 square kilometres of the Caribbean Sea was covered with an oil sheen, with the fringe of the spill within eight kilometres of Tobago.

German tugboats attached lines to the burning Atlantic Empress to tow it further out to sea and away from Tobago.

The smoke stack from the fires out at sea could be seen by sun-bathing tourists. Falling soot from the burning oil forced the Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) to cut the flow of water from the Charlotteville dam.

The Tobago Red Cross cared for survivors. Many needed shoes. The Radio and Emergency Associate Citizens organisation (React) was among the first to help with coffee, food and clothing.

Energy Minister Errol Mahabir addressed Parliament to give an update of the response to the spill, with the assurance that oil had not reached local shores.

Member of Parliament for Tobago East ANR Robinson asked to debate the spill in Parliament. He said the People’s National Movement (PNM) government had failed to track the movement of oil tankers in the country’s territorial waters and had not taken precautions advocated in the past.

National Security Minister John Donaldson (who died last year) ended up in a lifeboat 32 kilometres out at sea, along with his permanent secretary Teasley Taitt (now president of the Trinidad Building and Loans Association), a Regiment mechanic, and pilot Rene Serrao (who would later become famous flying jet fighters for the Royal Canadian Air Force).

The four were aboard a National Security helicopter, piloted by Serrao, that lost engine oil pressure and crashed on the way back from surveying the tanker collision. The four survived unhurt. The fire was put out aboard the Aegean Captain by the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and some of the seamen returned to the ship. However, the Atlantic Empress was an inferno. Firefighters allowed a controlled burn, to lessen the amount of polluting crude pouring from the rupturing tanks.

An oil slick 100 kilometres long was reported trailing it. The plan was to fight the fire far out at sea, secure the tanks still holding oil, and remove the remaining cargo, when the blaze was extinguished. However, there continued to be explosions aboard the vessel, and on August 2, the salvage effort was abandoned and the tow lines cut.

A day later, two weeks after the collision, the ship, still burning, sank and settled on the seabed four kilometres deep, about 418 kilometres east of Barbados.

No one knows how much of the oil entered the sea or burned. The spill is regarded as one of the worst tanker spills in history, and the Atlantic Empress one of the largest ships ever to sink (325 metres, compared to the Titanic at 291 metres).

Retired Rear Admiral Kelshall spoke with the Express last week regarding his recollection of the events. He recalled the spill turning north, instead of towards Tobago “to everyone’s amazement”. It was a result of the favourable ocean current.

Kelshall said many were scared that even a residue of oil would do untold damage to the island, but much of it dispersed in the open sea. Kelshall said, being in charge of the Coast Guard spill response, he went aboard the Aegean Captain, which had requested permission to enter the Gulf of Paria to effect repairs.

He said it would not be allowed until an inspection of the vessel was done. In the end, the tanker was taken to Aruba where the remaining oil was transferred (the vessel never returned for service and was scrapped in Taiwan in 1980). Kelshall said “that second vessel burned at sea. A tremendous blaze that created day out of night. The front half of the vessel remained intact for some time, before it sank”. There was no known environmental impact study done.

Former CNC-3 weatherman Eric Mackie, who was then a news cameraman with Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) also has an incredible memory from the events of 1979.

He recalled hearing a report on the 6a.m. news the day after the collision. Mackie said he called up then TTT News Director Neil Giuseppi who said the media outlet needed to find a way to get out to the collision site to record events. Mackie said he called up family friend and aviator Ferdinand Junior Farfan (now deceased), who said they should meet at the Piarco international airport at 8a.m. Mackie and Giuseppi went up in Farfan's twin engine Piper Seneca. Mackie said Farfan, who had flown the famous Spitfires (a British single-seater fighter) for the Royal Air Force during World War II, had no coordinates for the location of the burning tankers, but was confident that he could get the information by radioing aircraft in the vicinity. In this way, they learned that the collision was east of Tobago, and flew in that direction until they spotted the billowing smoke. Mackie said there was only one other vessel in the vicinity of the burning tankers, and there was no effort being made at the time, to control blaze. Mackie, now a regional coordinator with the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) said Farfan got with into 100 feet of the Atlantic Empress, as he videotaped the scene.

He said that moments before the plane was about to make a pass, there was an explosion aboard the tanker, and the plane flew into the thermal updraft. "I was not wearing a seat belt. I flew up and hit the roof" said Mackie. However, Farfan was able to bring the Piper under control. A lesser pilot, and the plane would have crashed, Mackie said. It is unknown whether footage of the tanker fire survives in the archives of the television station.

NOTE — Among those who reported this story for the Express were Raoul Pantin (now a columnist), Albert Griffith (who went on to a military career and headed the Strategic Services Agency (SSA), Selwyn Carr, and Horace Leighton-Mills, the Tobago correspondent for the Express, and Wahid Baksh, whose photos, along with those provided by Richard Kelshall, are among the images used in this article.
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