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Galicia, a region in northwestern Spain, is the jagged, western
edge of Europe -- a wild stretch of coastline with some of the
world's richest fishing grounds. On a rocky point, near the
small town of Muxia, a church commemorates the place where the
Virgin Mary is said to have come ashore in a stone boat. Now
there's a new monument at the holy site -- a massive rock sculpture
depicting the cracked hull of the oil tanker, the Prestige,
that sank off this coast in November 2002, causing one of the
worst oil spills in history.
The story of the wreck of the Prestige begins in Russia,
where the ship is loaded with oil in the port of St. Petersburg.
The oil tanker has a murky and complicated history -- her owners
are Greek, but they have registered their ship through a front
company in war-ravaged Liberia. It's a strategy that limits
taxes and liability. At 26 years old, the rusting, single-hulled
tanker is well past the age of retirement. But that doesn't
deter the owners from loading the aging ship with crude oil
number 4, one of the most toxic fuel oils known.
On October 30, 2002, the Prestige sets off. As the
tanker enters the heavily trafficked shipping lanes off Spain's
Costa del Muerte, the Coast of Death, she encounters a winter
storm. The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, hears a loud
bang from the starboard side. Suddenly, the ship begins to take
on water. Twenty-foot waves batter the hull and her engines
shut down. Mangouras issues a call for help.
Rescue helicopters evacuate the poorly paid Filipino crew.
Already leaking oil, the Prestige drifts to within four
miles of the Spanish coast. Spain dispatches a 68-year-old veteran
captain, Serafin Diaz, to take control of the vessel. "The boat
looked like an alligator in the middle of quicksand," Diaz tells
FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro. Lowered onto
the floundering vessel, the silver-haired Diaz discovers a gaping
50-foot hole on the starboard side -- the steel had been ripped
Diaz explains to Mangouras that the Spanish government has
ordered him to restart the ship's engines and steer the Prestige
out to sea, away from Spain. But Mangouras refuses, saying the
ship should be brought into port where the leaking oil might
be confined. The two men argue for hours. Finally, Diaz threatens
to bring in the Spanish navy, and Mangouras relents.
The Spanish plan is to get the wounded ship out to deep water
in the middle of the Atlantic, but after several days of sailing
-- and being towed -- the Prestige snaps in two and sinks,
only 130 miles from the coast. Mangouras is arrested and charged
with negligence and resisting Spanish authority.
The people of Galicia wait nervously, bracing for what might
be coming to foul their coastline. Soon, sheets and massive
clumps of oil wash in with the tides, killing millions of fish
and birds. The "black tide" contaminates 350 miles of coastline
with almost twice the oil that spewed from the infamous Exxon
Valdez in Alaska.
For the next six months, the beaches look like a scene from
science fiction as men in haz-mat suits blast the sticky oil
from the rocks with high-pressure hoses. The coast smells like
a gasoline station. The cleanup will cost an estimated $2 billion
-- the ship's insurance covers only $25 million.
Spain imposes a six-month ban on fishing in the region, causing
great economic hardship. Just as reporter Schapiro is visiting
the region, fishermen are returning to work, anxious to prove
that it is safe to eat their catch, though some environmentalists,
including the World Wildlife Federation, question whether it
is advisable to consume local fish and shellfish.
"This is an act of terror, a criminal act," says Rafael Mouzo,
a fisherman and mayor of the coastal town of Concurbion. "We
need an international tribunal to judge ... all those responsible
for the spill."
On the first anniversary of the Prestige disaster,
100,000 people take to the streets of the Galician capital,
Santiago de Compestela, organized by a new environmental movement
called Nunca Mais ("never again") in Gallego, the local Galician
As people demand to know who is to blame and who should pay
for the damages, Schapiro discovers that Serafin Diaz and the
Spanish government recovered documents from the Prestige
that indicate the ship never should have been allowed to go
It turns out that while the ship was still in St. Petersburg,
she had another captain, Esfraitos Kostazos, who sent the ship's
owners a series of urgent messages warning that the ship was
not seaworthy. Instead of making repairs, the owners replaced
Kostazos with Mangouras.
In Madrid, the man in charge of the Spanish investigation,
Adolfo Menendez Menendez, tells Schapiro that it was hard to
identify the mysterious owners of the Prestige, the Coulouthros
family, because they set up a network of front companies. Their
company in Liberia that owned the Prestige owned nothing
more. When the ship sank, there were no assets for Spain to
try to recover.
So Spain is filing a $750 million lawsuit against the ship's
inspection company, Houston, Texas-based American Bureau of
Shipping (ABS), which inspected the Prestige just six
months before it sank and declared it seaworthy. Then it turns
out that Kostazos, the original captain in St. Petersburg who
had tried to contact the ship's owners, also had sent a fax
to ABS, alerting them to nine serious deficiencies aboard the
Prestige, including cracked and corroded beam parts in
the ballast tank.
In a written response to FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark
Schapiro, ABS claims it did not receive the fax.
Meanwhile, maritime union officials say that Mangouras, now
awaiting trial in Spain, is a scapegoat for an out-of-control
international maritime system that allows broken-down, single-hulled
oil tankers to roam the seas.
Mayor Mouzo is furious that not enough has been done to protect
the Galician coast: "One hundred and fifty-two ships pass by
[here] every day. Ten percent of them are bad ships, pirates.
At any moment there could be another accident."
The Prestige has gone down. It is lying two miles below
the surface, still leaking oil. Spanish and French submarine
robots have sealed some leaks and will be used to extract the
remaining 13,000 tons of oil next spring.
But above this graveyard, along the Coast of Death, the unregulated
oil tankers keep passing.
Oriana Zill de Granados
Co-Producer and Videographer
Fia Na Roca
Departemento de Salvamento Maritimo,
Ministerio de Fomento
Atlas Espana Tele 5
Wildlife Health Center, UC Davis
Ocean Futures Society
ABC News Videosource
American Bureau of Shipping
AP / Wide World Photos
Deer Creek Foundation
Educational Foundation of America
A Co-Production With the Center
for Investigative Reporting
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