After his work day ended on November 13, 2002, Javier Sar, a 20-year-old sailor in the Spanish region of Galicia, was at a bar with colleagues.
That day, while fishing, they heard the news on the radio. One of the ships in the Finisterre corridor had problems. Nothing too unusual.
No one could have predicted that this seemingly feasible event would become the worst environmental disaster in Spain’s history.
Never before has 63,000 tons of fuel oil washed up on the shores of the northern Iberian country — ending up creating a 2,000-kilometer-long polluted area stretching from Portugal to Spain and France.
20 years ago, however, on the evening of November 13, all was calm.
The situation quickly becomes chaotic
It was in the early hours of the morning — just two hours into his shift — when Javier was woken up by a frightened colleague. The smell of diesel was overwhelming.
Thinking it was leaking from their own ship, the two sailors went down to the engine room, but as they walked through the corridors they realized that the smell was no longer so strong.
It didn’t come from their ship, it came from the sea.
“We didn’t know anything about what was happening. I couldn’t imagine that it was a tanker that was 27 (nautical) miles away a few hours ago and was in trouble, but we started to connect the dots,” Sar told Euronews.
“We heard the tugboats talking on the radio and then we realized. The ship was practically on the coast of Muxia.”
That tanker was the Prestige. The 243 meter long ship was out of control with 27 crew members. A strong storm caused a leak, which tilted the ship 45 degrees and the oil it was carrying began to leak into the sea.
Soon after, Sar received a call from Galicia’s regional minister of fisheries — local authorities were worried.
What is the situation,” he asked.
“Chaotic. The ship is (sinking) along the shore and we’ll see what happens,” Sar told him.
The Prestige was a 26-year-old single-hull vessel that had just been certified to sail by the US ABS classifier after repairs in China.
Experts who studied the case said that the ship suffered a hull failure in the same area where it was repaired.
After rescuing most of the ship’s crew — the captain and several other sailors remained inside the ship to help weigh it down — authorities decided to move it away from the shore and pulled it out to sea with the help of a tugboat.
“It was a disaster that could have been reduced to a few kilometers of coastline, but the displacement of the ship caused pollution of almost 2,000 kilometers, making it a disaster for the entire continent,” said Greenpeace spokesman Manoel Santos.
The decision was made by the Minister of Public Works at the time, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, who ordered the ship to be towed from the coast to the north, which worried the French and British authorities.
The crisis cabinet has been in session since November 14, and several options have been put on the table.
The government was even considering bombing the tanker with fighter jets before it sank, Defense Minister Federico Trillo said.
“None of the people who work at sea in Galicia supported the removal of the ship. It was maximizing the disaster,” Santos pointed out, referring to mistakes in the management of the crisis.
“There was a lot of false information from politicians, even denying the existence of the oil slick when people saw it entering their shores and beaches,” he adds. – It was a terrifying cocktail.
Until the Prestige finally sank six days later on November 19.
“The future was backwards, that’s the best way to put it. I was building a ship and after that we even thought about stopping production,” said Sar.
‘Rage and helplessness’
The ocean current favored the path of the heavy fuel towards the land. At that time, the oil spill covered 170 kilometers of the coast, and in the following days it continued to spread.
Despite the bad weather, thousands of volunteers and members of the army came to Galicia to help clean the beaches.
“The image I have in my mind from those days is of volunteers working full steam, cleaning the beaches. And the desolation you had when after a few days you more or less had a clean beach, and the next day, you arrived and the beach was the same as at the beginning said Sar.
“You would come back with that anger and powerlessness,” he said.
The cleaning was chaotic, and the volunteers did not even have protective equipment.
“There was absolutely nothing. The first time the (Spanish) king came to Muxia, we told him that we had absolutely nothing, not even protective material. The next day a truck appeared in the harbor and they took him to the Civil Protection with gloves, covers and masks ”, said Sar.
From sunrise to sunset, they collected more than 100,000 tons of black tarry goo. The days were hard and intense.
“When it was a sunny day, (the oil) became more volatile and you would see volunteers getting dizzy and fainting. It was shocking,” he added.
The Prestige trial
The spill covered almost 3,000 kilometers of polluted coastline, but the trial, which took place ten years after the spill, only brought some of the guilty to the dock, according to Santos.
“The trial was the biggest environmental trial in the history of Spain. It was a mega-trial. The investigation lasted nine years. And after eleven years, no one was found guilty. In fact, many people did not show up,” Santos, a Greenpeace spokesman, said.
“There was a sentence in 2013 by the regional High Court (of Galicia), but no one was convicted of an environmental crime.”
“He only convicted the captain of the ship for gross disobedience to the Spanish authorities in the rescue operations,” said Margarita Trejo, an environmental law expert.
“It took 16 years, until 2008, to get a sentence of two years in prison for environmental and environmental crime against the captain of the ship.
“It also took 16 years to obtain compensation and reparations for both the Spanish state and the Junta de Galicia, as well as others affected,” Trejo said.
The total amount requested by the Spanish state as reparations amounts to one billion dollars (about one billion euros).
A court in the United Kingdom has yet to determine whether British insurer Prestige — which has been found liable for the environmental tragedy by proxy — must compensate the victims.