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1978

Gas fire incinerates crowded campsite, killing hundreds

On this day in 1978, a truck carrying liquid gas crashes into a campsite, crowded with vacationers, in San Carlos de la Rapita, Spain. The resulting explosion killed more than 200 people; many others suffered severe burns.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on a hot day on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, a 38-ton truck carrying propylene gas, used in the manufacture of alcohol, was traveling on a small, winding road 120 miles south of Barcelona. The truck, owned by Cisternas Reunidas, may have been on this coastal road instead of the nearby turnpike in order to avoid paying a toll. For unknown reasons, the truck crashed into a cement wall. (Some witnesses report seeing a fire on the truck before the crash.)

Down a hill from the cement wall, 800 people, mostly families on vacation from Germany and France, were camped out near the beach in tents and makeshift bungalows. The truck, carrying 1,500 cubic feet of pressurized liquid gas, plunged down the hill and exploded in a massive fireball. Flames shot up 100 feet into the air, killing many people instantly. The resulting crater was 20 yards in diameter. The huge fire and explosion also caused the camper’s portable gas units and cars to blow up. Few of the survivors were wearing any protective clothing other than a bathing suit and many of them suffered horrible burns.

The timing of the disaster also contributed to the high casualty toll. Coming just after lunch, many people had not yet returned to the nearby beach. In all, 215 people lost their lives. So many German citizens were involved that German officials arranged for an airlift of doctors and equipment from Stuttgart to assist in the relief effort.

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