In 1992, the oil tanker “Aegean Sea” exploded in front of the port of A Coruña, 80,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea. Witnesses of the accident still suffer today. Experts warn that a new oil spill on this “main sea highway” cannot be ruled out.

“It was hell on earth. I still tremble when I think about it. Sometimes I even have nightmares, still.” Antonio remembers it as if it happened yesterday. And yet it was 30 years ago: In the early morning of December 3, 1992, the oil tanker “Aegean Sea” ran aground on the cliffs in front of the port of the Spanish city of A Coruña in the north-west of the country. After a few hours, the Greek ship broke in two. Shortly thereafter, a deafening explosion, and the “Aegean Sea” burst into flames. A huge, dense, black, stinking column of smoke turned day into night within minutes. “The blackest day in A Coruña” was the headline in the regional newspaper “La Opinión”.

Antonio, who would rather not read his full name in the newspaper, has to take off his sunglasses several times in an interview with the German Press Agency to wipe away tears. “It was scary. Everything was black, the sky, the horizon,” says the 80-year-old, whose apartment is on the beach promenade. The accident of the 260 meter and 40 meter wide tanker happened in bad weather only a hundred meters from the Tower of Hercules, a 2000 year old Roman lighthouse, the symbol of the city.

Panic broke out among many. 3000 residents and hundreds of tourists from hotels near the coast were brought to safety. The crew of 30 – from Greece and the Philippines – and the Greek captain jumped into the stormy sea to save themselves. Antonio wasn’t the only one shaking at the time. Even people who have held positions of responsibility admit that they were very afraid. Former mayor Francisco Vázquez told the newspaper “La Opiniòn” that the worst was expected because of the toxic smoke. “We had plans to evacuate the entire city.” Rafael Lobeto Lobo, then head of the Spanish merchant marine, went to A Coruña on December 3rd. “When I arrived, I wanted to run away again,” he told the newspaper.

The fire was extinguished after around 30 hours. Nobody died. But the consequences for the environment and for thousands of people were devastating. Most of the cargo of 80,000 tons of crude oil flowed into the sea. Almost twice as much as when the US tanker Exxon Valdez crashed off Alaska in 1989. An oil spill the size of 7,000 soccer fields at 50 square kilometers affected around 300 kilometers of the Galician coast. At least 26,000 animals, mostly seabirds and fish, died, according to ecologists. Around 4,000 fishermen and shell collectors lost their jobs for a long time. Fines of 300,000 pesetas (about 2,000 euros) each were imposed on the ship’s captain and the port pilot responsible.

And after a long feud, the Spanish state granted those affected, including the shipping company, the oil trader and the fishermen, compensation totaling more than 125 million euros – but only after ten years. At that time it was already the third oil spill in just 16 years on the “Costa da Morte”, the notorious “Death Coast” due to the many rocky reefs, storms and shipwrecks. In 1976 the “Urquiola” caught fire off A Coruña. 100,000 tons of crude oil contaminated the sea. Two years later, the “Andros Patria” exploded off the Sisargas Islands. 34 sailors died, 50,000 tons of crude oil spilled. It’s understandable that the “Coruñeses” were fed up in 1992. Tens of thousands took to the streets demanding “Nunca Máis!” (Never again!). For free.

Only ten years later, at the end of November 2002, another huge oil spill. This time, further away from the coast, the tanker “Prestige” sank. 63,000 tons of oil spilled into the ocean and polluted 2900 kilometers of coastline. 200,000 seabirds lost their lives. This time, the oil slick reached several regions of northern Spain and parts of the coasts of Portugal and France. That was the last major oil spill in Europe. Among other things, because the safety precautions on board and at the ports have been improved. But a repeat is not impossible, experts warn. Off the coast of Galicia, one of Europe’s busiest “motorways of the sea,” 40,000 ships a year, a third of which transport dangerous goods, say Xaquín Rubido, spokesman for the Nunca Mais movement, and Cristóbal López of the environmental group Ecologistas en Acción recently on TV.

“It’s the number that counts,” says López. In addition, there are still many flag states that are something like “tax havens” because they hardly carry out any checks on the ships registered with them, emphasizes Rubido. “It could happen again, yes, but we are better prepared,” said José Arrojo of the Spanish merchant marine. Small consolation for many “Mariscadoras”, the shell collectors of Galicia. They are called “Mujeres de Hierro”, “Women of Iron” because they are tough and never get sick, although they often search for seafood in the cold Atlantic waters until old age.

María Teresa was also never ill until she helped rid the beaches of sticky and toxic dirt in 1992 and again in 2002. “I’ve had asthma and many other problems since then,” the 72-year-old told dpa. “And I’ve had skin allergies ever since,” says Rosalía (67). However, no connection to the catastrophes was found in studies, both say quietly. You sound resigned.