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 Atlantic Empress

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SpillsAtlantic Empress

On 19 July 1979 at 7pm, two loaded VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carriers), the Atlantic Empress (carrying 276,000 tonnes of crude oil) and the Aegean Captain (carrying 200,000 tonnes of crude oil) collided with each other in the Caribbean Sea, off Tobago island. The Atlantic Empress and the bow part of the Aegean Captain went up in flames. 26 sailors were killed.

The crew of the Aegean Captain managed to control the fire in the ship. She was towed the following days towards Trinidad and then Curacao, losing small quantities of oil on the way, which a tug boat sprayed with dispersants. In Curacao, the cargo was transferred into other vessels.

The burning Atlantic Empress was towed towards the open sea, surrounded by vessels hosing the fire and followed by an oil slick which was partly in flames. A major fire-fighting operation was carried out, as well as the treatment of the pollution with dispersants. However, despite the response team's efforts, a series of explosions shook the ship on 23 and 24 July. The 29 July saw a more powerful explosion and the fire increased.


The Atlantic Empress on fire, on 30 July
(source: Stuart A. Horn and Captain Phillip Neal)


On 2nd August, the shipwreck began to list, the oil spilled at an increasing rate and the towrope was released. The remaining parts of the Atlantic Empress continued to burn furiously in the middle of a burning oil slick and disappeared under a huge cloud of black smoke. On 3 August at dawn, only an oil slick remained on the surface of water. The biggest vessel ever to have sunk had disappeared after 15 days of agony. Followed by surveillance tug boats, the oil still visible at the surface had totally disappeared by 9 August, without touching the shore.

Name: Atlantic Empress/Aegean Captain

Date: 19 July 1979

Location: Caribbean


Accident area: 10 miles off Tobago

Cause of spill: collision

Quantity transported: 276,000 tonnes

Type of pollutant: crude oil

Quantity spilled: 276,000 tonnes

Ship type: oil tanker

Date built: 1974

Length: 347 m

Width: 52 m

Flag: Greek




The total loss of the 280,000 tonnes of oil as a result of this collision holds the world record for an oil tanker accident. Nobody will ever know what was burned and what was dispersed by the sea. No significant shore pollution was recorded on the nearest islands. No impact study was carried out, either by the surrounding countries, or the international community, as awareness regarding marine pollution was less developed then than it is today. Furthermore, at that time all eyes were turned towards another disaster, the explosion of the Ixtoc I drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.




Last update: April 2006

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