July 19

This Day in History

Disaster

Jul 19, 1979:

Oil tankers collide in Caribbean Sea

On this day in 1979, two gigantic supertankers collide off the island of Little Tobago in the Caribbean Sea, killing 26 crew members and spilling 280,000 tons of crude oil into the sea. At the time, it was the worst oil-tanker accident in history and remains one of the very few times in history when two oil tankers have collided.

It was early evening when the two large carriers of crude oil collided. The Atlantic Empress had 275,000 tons of oil aboard; the Aegean Captain was carrying 200,000 tons. After the collision, fires broke out all over the Atlantic Empress and on the bow of the Aegean Captain. The Aegean managed to control the fire and then was towed toward Trinidad. Some oil was spilled during the towing, but a fair portion of the cargo was transferred successfully to other vessels.

The Atlantic Empress, however, had more difficulties. While it was still burning, it was towed toward the open sea. Oil continued to leak, burning on top of the ocean waters. Four days after the collision, with the fire still out of control, an explosion rocked the ship. There was another explosion the next day. Still, efforts to stop the fire and prevent more oil from spilling into the ocean continued. On July 29, 10 days after the fire began, another powerful explosion ended hopes of containing the blaze. On August 3, the Atlantic Empress sunk to the ocean bottom, leaving only a burning oil slick behind.

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