- The Washington Times - Monday, November 25, 2002

LONDON Spain and Portugal have been blamed for last week's oil tanker disaster after refusing to offer the Prestige a safe haven. But who is really at fault?
The protracted death throes of the Prestige drew to a dramatic close Tuesday afternoon when the red-and-black bow of the aging tanker disappeared beneath the bubbling, oil-slicked waters of the North Atlantic, 150 miles off the rugged coastline and centuries-old Galician fishing villages of northwest Spain.
The Prestige's fate effectively had been sealed five days earlier, however, at a meeting in the regional capital of La Coruna between Dutch salvage specialists and Spanish political leaders and maritime authorities.
The representatives of Smit International told their hosts the only realistic chance of saving the crippled vessel from sinking was to tow it into a sheltered cove for repairs.
The Prestige already had spewed an estimated 11,000 tons of its 70,000-ton cargo of Russian fuel oil after a gaping hole developed below the waterline during a furious storm Nov. 13.
As the meeting was taking place in La Coruna the next day, a team from Smit was working with the tanker's Greek captain, Apostolus Maguras, to secure the stricken vessel to two tugboats as it drifted within a few miles of the "Coast of Death," so called because the rocky shoreline there has wrecked so many ships.
The ship's Athens-based managers, Universe Maritime, and the Dutch salvagers argued that the vessel should be brought into sheltered waters, surrounded by a boom and patched up. Suction devices would skim off as much of the leaked oil as possible and the remaining cargo could be unloaded. Some pollution was inevitable, but the damage would be limited, they said.
The message from the Spanish authorities was blunt: With thick black sludge already washing ashore, coating seabirds and destroying fishing grounds, there was no way they were allowing the 26-year-old single-hull tanker to come any closer.
Despite Smit's warnings that hundreds of miles of coastline would be endangered if the Prestige broke up at sea, the company was ordered to tow the vessel into the exposed, storm-battered waters of the North Atlantic.
Naval frigates were put on standby to "escort" the Presitge if the order was not obeyed, and Mr. Maguras, the tanker's skipper, later was arrested for refusing to cooperate with the Spanish authorities and remained in jail in La Coruna.
"The last thing you should do if a vessel has a crack in the side is take it out into the Atlantic at the mercy of the elements," said Edmund Brookes, deputy director-general of the London-based Chamber of Shipping. "It should have been brought into calm waters for repairs and to offload the cargo. The technology is there. It's not rocket science, but you cannot do it the middle of the ocean in winter."
Even by the complex standards of the shipping industry, the Prestige had a bewildering international pedigree.
It was owned by a Greek-controlled Liberian company, flew under a Bahamian flag, was captained by a Greek master with a Filipino crew and had been chartered by a Russian oil trader with offices in London to carry its cargo from the Baltic to Singapore.
Yet it had seemed the start of a routine journey for Mr. Maguras when he set off Oct. 30 from St. Petersburg. He stopped in Latvia to load the cargo of oil, and then in Denmark to collect the Prestige's own fuel before setting off for Singapore on Nov. 7. The journey was scheduled to last 29 days, but disaster struck on the sixth.
Mr. Maguras must have grimaced when he heard the weather forecast as he rounded the northwest shoulder of Spain in a stretch of ocean notorious among seafarers for its furious winds and ferocious seas.
The Nov. 13 storm struck the aging vessel at midday, with winds of 50 miles per hour sending 30-foot waves crashing over the rain-lashed main deck.
Mr. Maguras and his crew already were struggling to control the rolling tanker when they heard a loud crack, audible even over the roar of the ocean, on the port side of the ship. They realized that a gaping hole had been torn below the waterline, and the Prestige was listing precariously.
"Everything happened very suddenly, very rapidly," said Nicolas Silhay, a crewman. "We were terrified. We sent the SOS signal, but some of us thought that we would not survive."
Mr. Maguras, who has been a ship's master for more than 30 years, made the SOS call at 3:15 p.m., when the vessel was 28 miles from Cape Finisterre. One hour later, rescue helicopters arrived over the stricken tanker, which by now was listing by about 40 degrees.
The helicopter pilots thought two of the crew had been swept away when a towering wave engulfed them, but the men managed to grab hold of a cable. Another time, three crew members almost slipped overboard as they desperately tried to close hatches.
The winching operation was fraught with danger. At one stage, the wind entangled the safety line with the ship. One crew member was thrown into the air when his safety harness buckled, but he managed to cling to the line as waves pounded the deck.
After two hours, 24 crewmen had been lifted to safety, leaving just Mr. Maguras, the Greek chief engineer and the Filipino chief officer aboard. They were joined the next day by the 10-man Smit salvage team, which managed to secure the Prestige to the tugboats just a couple of hours before it would have been swept onto the rocky coast.
Faced by the orders from Spain and a similar refusal of safe haven from neighboring Portugal, the tugs set out into the Atlantic in the hope of reaching calmer waters, perhaps off West Africa, where a salvage operation could be undertaken.
Even then, a Portuguese warship ordered them to change course on the evening of Nov. 18 when they strayed into Lisbon's 120-mile waters as the tugs and tanker headed south. "We didn't know where we were heading. We just wanted to get south as quickly as possible," said Lars Walder, the Smit spokesman.
By Tuesday morning, the direction of travel had become a moot point. The salvagers saw the Prestige was breaking up as dawn broke. The tanker split in half at around 8 a.m., with the stern sinking in 10,000 feet of water at midday and the bow following a few hours later.
The initial incident raised inevitable questions about the seaworthiness of the vessel and prompted new calls for the accelerated phasing-out of single-hull tankers. They are due to be taken out of service by 2015 or once they reach 30 years, whichever is sooner. The Prestige was due to stop service by March 2005.
However, Spain also seized on the disaster to try to make political capital over Gibraltar, claiming the Prestige was a "frequent caller" at the colony and that Britain had failed to inspect the vessel as required. Those comments provoked anger in London the Prestige's only stop in Gibraltar in the last five years was in June, when it briefly refueled there but did not enter the port.
The strongest British ire, however, was reserved for Loyola de Palacio, the European Union energy and transport commissioner who harbors political ambitions back in her homeland of Spain. Miss de Palacio, a former Spanish farm minister who has been tipped as a future prime minister, repeated Madrid's false claims about Gibraltar throughout the week, and threatened to prosecute Britain for failing to inspect the tanker.
As the Spanish intensified their accusations, Mariano Rajoy, the deputy prime minister, then claimed that Smit had wanted to take the Prestige into a safe port to make money from the disaster a claim that the company angrily denied.
Indeed, in a rare alliance of interests, the shipping industry, salvage specialists and environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature all criticized the Spanish order that the stricken vessel should be towed out to sea.
"If we had been allowed to come into shore, some spillage of oil would be inevitable, but we could contain the damage to a few miles of coast," said Mr. Walder. "We told the Spanish authorities that towing the vessel out to sea would make the damage much worse. But that was their decision."
Hundreds of soldiers, students and volunteers equipped with buckets and spades took advantage of a break in bad weather Saturday to scoop up chunks of thick sludge that had washed ashore on more than 100 beaches along about 250 miles of affected coastline.
A French three-man submarine previously used to explore the wreck of the Titanic has been sent by Spain to the scene of the sinking. Despite reports of fresh oil slicks, the Spanish authorities are pinning their hopes on the oil solidifying inside the broken vessel in the frigid ocean depths.


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