Ship Wrecked

A Houston firm certified the oil tanker Prestige as good to go. It broke apart in the Atlantic, causing the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

ABS claims it never received the faxes. The company's vice president, Stuart Wade, said the ship owner never informed the society of the first fax. And a search for evidence of the second fax in the company's phone records never detected a call from the number used by Kostazos. "It is highly unusual for the ship operator to send a message to a classification society," Wade added. "It is normally sent to the owner."

ABS said it followed all of its rules when it inspected the Prestige. But even if the society is proved wrong, it could be hard to show it caused the shipwreck. ABS made this clear in its own thick report on the accident, which spelled out the weakness of any case against the company:

"[W]ith all the physical evidence pertaining to the initial incident on the ocean floor scattered along a six day track line, most of it lying three thousand meters below the surface, it quickly became apparent that there may never be a way to identify a failure mode that led to the initial flooding. Without a clear identification of how it happened, it is impossible to clearly determine why it happened and how to prevent recurrences in the future."

The Haven explosion caused the worst oil spill in the history of the Mediterranean.
Daniel Kramer
The Haven explosion caused the worst oil spill in the history of the Mediterranean.
Attorney Tasso Triantaphylis negotiated an out-of-court settlement with ABS in Houston.
Daniel Kramer
Attorney Tasso Triantaphylis negotiated an out-of-court settlement with ABS in Houston.

Many people who say they have been wronged by ABS have heard similar arguments before.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Panagiotis Toubaniaris -- one of ABS's most persistent critics, and one of the luckiest mariners alive -- was carrying a load of crude oil on the M/T Haven supertanker from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates. In the dark of the morning, an Iranian warship fired a rocket into the Haven's hull and unleashed a torrent of flaming oil. Toubaniaris realized the fire would cook the crew in a pool of burning crude if the Haven's engine stopped. So at a pause in the attack, he dashed to the control room and mashed the throttle full bore. The ship left a wake of flame as she sped east into a rising sun, grounding on a shore of the Persian Gulf near Mina Saqr, where the miraculously uninjured crew was rescued.

The Haven's insurers at first declared the ship a total loss. But the owners towed it to Singapore, where ABS supervised repairs for two years. Toubaniaris oversaw the use of spare parts and angrily watched ABS sanction what he described as shoddy work. He recounted in a deposition how repairmen used valves and ball bearings of "cheap and inferior quality." He said ABS didn't require repair of the rusted walls of a ballast tank and let workers install rusted couplings on a cargo line for crude oil. The company also never inspected crucial safety components such as the pressure vacuum valves. "I expressly pointed out those inadequacies and improprieties to the representative of the American Bureau of Shipping, Mr. Hararah," he said, "but they were not corrected."

Toubaniaris quit the Haven in protest and returned only after the owners assured him the problems had been fixed. The ship's first voyage took her from Singapore to the Persian Gulf in 1991 and on to Italy that spring, where she anchored offshore near Genoa. ABS questions what happened to the Haven there in the waters of Christopher Columbus's hometown, but for Toubaniaris -- who intimately knew the vessel -- only one chronology makes sense.

The Haven's troubles began with a routine oil transfer from one fuel tank to another inside the ship. As an empty tank filled, two pressure valves (which ABS had failed to inspect, he said) should have let out the excess gas displaced by the oil. Italian authorities later determined the valves never opened. A different valve should have at least fed the oil back to the original fuel tank when pressure mounted, but Toubaniaris observed that the valve didn't work. The skyrocketing pressure thus caused a rusted wall next to the empty, oxygen-filled ballast tank to buckle and spark, he said. Meanwhile, the pressure was also causing a rusted coupling inside the ballast tank (installed with ABS approval) to leak oil. The sparks, oxygen and oil mixed, and the cargo hold exploded in a ball of fire.

By the time Toubaniaris grabbed a life vest, burning oil was swelling around the ship. He jumped overboard and swam. But the fire raged more than 20 stories high, consumed the surrounding air and created a wind that sucked him back into the flames. As he grew tired and the heat singed his skin, he knew he would die, and he drank the oily seawater into his lungs in an attempt to drown himself instead of being burned alive.

Yet as luck would have it, a rescue boat had spotted him through the smoke. The heat was so great that the crew could approach only close enough to hurl a life preserver. Toubaniaris used his final strength to lunge for it and was dragged from the inferno.

The Haven wreck was the fifth-largest tanker spill in history and the worst ever in the Mediterranean. More than 40 million gallons of crude oil belched into the sea, and the Italian government declared the country's first state of emergency since World War II. Dense clouds of black smoke hovered over the Italian Riviera for three days. Despite efforts to contain the spill, the pollution wrecked the tourist season and cut the region's fish harvests in half. The ship caused an estimated $450 million in damages.

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