The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
The Prestige split in half and sank a mere 130 miles off the Spanish coast.
AP/Armando Franca

Ship Wrecked

Off the coast of Galicia, a rocky province in northwest Spain, a storm was brewing. Captain Luis Dopico, aboard the tiny Carmen Belen, towed a line of 2,000 hooks through the ocean. He braced against the spray and hoisted up a cord writhing with sea snakes. Ocean life from the Atlantic has supported his family for generations.

But not everybody was riding out the November squalls as successfully. Dopico listened to his ship's radio and learned that an oil tanker, the M/V Prestige, had sprung a leak. "We knew that our future and the future of our children was endangered," he said. "And our blood began to jump."

Longer than two football fields, the rusting Prestige carried 20 million gallons of heavy crude oil -- nearly twice the load spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The ship had been sailing north past the jagged Costa del Muerte, the Coast of Death, when the hull shuddered with a loud bang. Water gushed through a gaping hole, the engines lost power, and the tanker drifted within four miles of the Spanish coast.

The Greek captain, Apostolos Mangouras, demanded Spanish officials grant the vessel refuge in port, where the oil could be contained. But Spain refused to risk a harbor. Two tugboats lashed lines to the ship and towed her out to sea, trailed by an unctuous wake. After five days of sloshing in high waves, the Prestige split in half and sank, a mere 130 miles from shore.

Even before the wreck began belching up crude, it had disgorged a formidable slick. The oil curled back to the coast, pushed by gales and surf. Two days after the sinking, authorities in Dopico's village, A Coruña, banned fishing. Three days later, the first black tide struck the town's white beaches, creating what aid workers described as a moonscape.

The oil spill was called the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history.

More than 4,000 miles away in Houston, the news barely made the headlines last winter -- but in the global headquarters of the American Bureau of Shipping in Greenspoint, it was crisis time. ABS is one of the world's largest classification societies -- firms that inspect ships to ensure they meet safety standards. ABS approved the Prestige shortly before it sank, and critics say the inspection was deeply flawed.

Houston is now a battleground for a major challenge against ABS. Thousands of fishermen like Dopico have demanded justice. At stake is a billion dollars and, quite possibly, the effectiveness of the very laws that are meant to prevent oil spills.

In a building in Madrid, the government-appointed Prestige Commission is filled with taciturn officials whose purpose seems to be to route inquiries through Byzantine channels that end nowhere. Few people wish to discuss the Prestige because so much is at stake in determining who is to blame. But one government investigator said it's ABS that should start talking. "ABS needs to answer certain questions," said technical expert Francisco Alonso. "It needs to justify why it authorized the security of this ship. And still, from the beginning, it hasn't done that."

Three years ago, the Prestige was lowered into a dry dock in Guangzhou, China, where ABS performed an extensive once-in-five-year inspection. Among other tests, ABS checked out heating coils that were installed to keep oil warm in the ship's cargo tanks. Heating coils can pose a danger to oil tankers. They can speed up corrosion in adjacent ballast tanks, where ships store water to stabilize themselves. By the time ABS inspected the Prestige a year later in Dubai, checking such ballast tanks was an ABS requirement.

Yet according to an audit of ABS, the company never looked at the ballast tanks. The International Association of Classification Societies found that ABS accepted assurances in Dubai from the ship's master that heating coils were not present next to the ballast tanks. One lawyer also said the ABS office in Houston sent the wrong checklist to the inspectors in Dubai, causing them to overlook the tanks. It was in one of these tanks, he said, that the hull of the Prestige first failed.

The lawyer is Friendswood attorney Anthony Buzbee. Six months after the Prestige hit the ocean floor, he filed what would become a $300 million suit against ABS in Houston on behalf of the oil-drenched Basque region, a Spanish province about the size of New Jersey. The Spanish government filed a similar case eight days later against ABS in New York, seeking another $700 million. Both cases allege ABS caused the oil spill and should pay to clean it up.

To build a case against ABS, the lawyers probably will rely on papers salvaged from the Prestige shortly before it sank. One of them is a fax sent two months after ABS inspected the Prestige by Esfraitos Kostazos, then the captain of the ship, to the tanker's owners in Greece. Kostazos tendered his resignation and demanded he be replaced "as soon as possible" because of his concerns over what he said were dangerous conditions aboard the ship.

He reportedly sent a second, more important fax a month later to ABS in Houston, informing the society of nine concerns with the ship, including problems with heating coils and "cracked and corroded beam parts" in a ballast tank. "That fax is very, very important to this case," Buzbee said. "We can win the case without it, but with it, the case is incredibly strong."

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."

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.

The injuries that Toubaniaris suffered ended his career as a mariner. He was hospitalized in Italy for 16 days and in Athens for another six months. The force of the ship's explosion broke one of his eardrums, leaving him with a condition that causes him to hear continuous noise and become dizzy when he makes sudden movements. He developed a liver disease from ingesting the oil. And he suffers recurring nightmares and paranoia. Compared to many crew members -- five of whom died -- he was lucky.

The Italian government sued the ship's owners for manslaughter, but Toubaniaris took a different course and went after ABS. In a 1993 lawsuit against the company in Houston, he accused ABS of performing a negligent inspection. A Houston lawyer, Anastassios "Tasso" Triantaphylis, wrangled with ABS attorneys for nearly a decade before accepting a confidential out-of-court settlement shortly before the case was to go to trial. The decision was easy.

"The only witness accessible was my client, the ship was on the bottom of the sea, and the studies made on the causes of the wreck were done by an Italian bureaucracy," he explained. The trial would have been an exhausting international marathon, a problem in almost any lawsuit involving a distant shipwreck, and a big reason why, in court, ABS can seem unassailable.

The difficulty of suing ABS hasn't stopped other disgruntled ship owners and mariners from directing their guns at the company. ABS has been taken to court over disasters ranging from a split cargo ship to an impaled cruise liner to an exploding offshore oil rig. Many suits failed. But others established major shortcomings in ABS's performance and set precedents that increasingly are being used to hold the company accountable.

In 1983 ABS surveyed the M/V Thomas K cargo ship in Port Arthur, Texas. The vessel was due that year for a major out-of-water inspection, but instead of dry-docking the ship to check the hull, ABS divers inspected her underwater and issued a "six month extension." The ship loaded scrap metal bound for the Mitsubishi Corporation and set sail for Japan, encountering heavy seas in the North Pacific. The plating on the hull ripped apart and the ship sank, killing eight of the 14 crew members. A Japanese TV crew filmed many of them jumping to their deaths as the ship went down.

A jury appointed by the U.S. District Court in Beaumont awarded survivors and families of the deceased a hefty verdict of $22 million, finding the owner of the ship and ABS each 50 percent liable. The jury also slapped ABS with another $3 million in punitive damages. The families later chose to settle out of court with ABS, but a strong legal precedent had been established. "That was the first time a classification society had been held liable," said Jerry Dodson, the families' Baton Rouge lawyer.

Another case filed against ABS around the same time tightened the legal noose of accountability around the company even further. In 1984 the Sundancer cruise ship struck a rock and sank near Vancouver. The ship's owner, Sundance Cruises, argued the vessel could have been saved had ABS detected defects during an $85,000 inspection conducted just two weeks earlier. Although an appeals court threw the case out on a technicality of Bahamian law, it established "negligent misrepresentation" as another valid cause to sue classification societies. Spain's Prestige attorney Brian Starer, who tried the Sundance case, said the precedent was essential. "It established the baseline for cases like the Prestige case now," he said.

ABS has successfully defended itself in other suits by stressing its own limitations. "ABS, or any classification society, has very limited ultimate responsibilities," company vice president Wade said. "The basic responsibility for a ship is the ship owner…We're not detective agencies. We're not policemen with wide-ranging powers. Only in the most extreme circumstances can we go onto a ship uninvited."

But attorneys point out that governments have increasingly relied on ABS to serve precisely as the industry's stick-wielding cop. The U.S. Coast Guard contracted ABS in 1995 to perform inspections of U.S. ships. ABS inspectors are now often the only domestic officials to ensure that American vessels follow major national and international rules. Reliance on ABS and other classification societies is often even greater overseas. Many countries lack the know-how to examine ships themselves, and depend almost entirely on classification societies. And when foreign ships arrive in the United States, Coast Guard officials look at which society certified them to decide if they merit inspection.

As the societies expand, they should become more accountable for their mistakes, said Starer. "These are not little classification societies anymore," he told Lloyd's List. "Their role in the industry is tremendous. But as their role has evolved, their liability has not."

A jury in Houston will probably be the first to hear arguments against ABS. Buzbee is gearing up for a trial this fall. "If we are successful, which I feel like we are gonna be now, this is going to set a major precedent for all classification societies," he said. "That's why it's such an important case."

Outside the lofty foyer of the ABS building in Houston, an American eagle stretches its wings and clenches the neck of a hefty anchor. A fleet of model ships lines the hallway inside, each tanker and bulk carrier a feat of engineering on a gallery scale. Up the elevator, on the eighth floor, hang oil paintings of generations of hoary corporate directors. The impression is that ABS knows more about ship safety than anybody.

"We are widely considered to be in the elite sphere of even the most responsible classification societies," Wade said. The numbers bear him out. The best measure of classification society performance is kept by the U.S. Coast Guard, which releases statistics every year on how often ships are detained by government inspectors due to errors the societies should have found. Between 2000 and 2002, ABS ranked as the third-best society in the world, with an average of .14 percent of ships detained.

The strong record of ABS sharply contrasts with those of many other societies. About 50 firms describe themselves as classification societies, and until recently, some would classify a ship online without bothering to inspect it. Even societies associated with major countries such as Russia and China sport detention rates more than ten times higher than that of ABS. And some societies are exponentially worse. More than 10 percent of ships inspected by the slipshod Honduras International Naval Survey and Inspection Bureau are detained by the Coast Guard, and the Panama Ship Register is even shoddier, with nearly one in three ships detained.

These lower-end inspectors are remarkably difficult to drive out of business. The only companies with a strong incentive to scrutinize the inspections are the insurance firms, which rely on the inspection reports to decide if they will insure a ship. But in practice, the insurers often look the other way.

"Insurance companies are actually in the business of having the odd marine accident," explained Roger Linkester, a delegate for the environmental group Friends of the Earth to the United Nations International Maritime Organization. "If things get so safe, people are saying, 'Okay, why do we need to pay insurance?' And the premiums tend to go down, because the risk is perceived to be so negligible. So it's in the insurance companies' best interest to have a Prestige every now and again, just to remind people that there is this trampoline of security for somebody to pick up the tab."

Perhaps more than other classification societies, ABS has upbraided the insurers for playing the system. At a recent conference, ABS president Robert Sommervale lambasted the insurers for being "invisible" in efforts to bolster safety and for engaging in "a narrow, desperate race to grab business, any business, at ruinous rates." Insurers were allowing "classification societies to be traded off against each other," he said, resulting in lower standards.

The financial pressures that Sommervale decried may be one reason why his own company doesn't have a better safety record. Ship classification is a labor-intensive business with low profit margins -- the inspection of the Prestige in China cost a mere $1,000, ABS said. With that kind of money, classification societies may have trouble attracting top-quality employees.

"I know some of the lads from ABS, and I find them to be some of the most competent individuals anywhere in ship architecture and marine engineering," said Linkester, who is himself a structural engineer. "I think where there might be a problem is where ABS has satellite regional organizations. I mean, ABS is so big, they have an office in Beijing, an office in Cairo, an office here and an office there, and what is not quite so clear is whether they are able to recruit local staff which have the same level of competence as people, let's say, from the U.S."

The dirty and uncomfortable work of ship inspection is not exactly the kind of profession highly trained college grads are dreaming of, he explained. "I think it's a rotten job, it's a terribly grubby job, crawling through the bilge space of a ship to check the level of corrosion in things, and I think there is enormous temptation not to do it."

Ship owners make problems with the societies even worse. The owners, who pay for the ship classifications, often try to intimidate inspectors into approving substandard vessels. Sommervale railed against the problem last year at the World Maritime Forum. A ship owner "will try to squeeze permission to defer repairs until the next dry-docking," he said. "And when that time comes, he will try again to limit the extent of renewals."

Despite Sommervale's complaints, his view of the maritime industry remains optimistic. The company advocates modest, mostly voluntary reforms and stresses the industry's improving track record. "More ships are carrying more cargo more safely than at any time in history," Wade said. International shipping has a better safety record than the airline industry: Six billion tons of oil are carried on the ocean annually, he said, and 99.994 percent of it arrives safely.

Yet the amount of oil that doesn't make it to shore safely still totals 36 million tons, and for many people, that's 36 million tons too much.

In pondering where next year's 36 million tons of oil will spill, consider that a tanker just like the Prestige could dock in the Gulf of Mexico tomorrow. A loophole in the Oil Pollution Act allows ships such as the Prestige to moor at a deepwater port called LOOP, 18 miles south of Grand Isle, Louisiana, until 2015. Built in Japan in 1976, the Prestige became too old to trade in other U.S. ports after 2000 but visited harbors around the country until just a few years ago, racking up infractions along the way.

Between 1984 and 1999, the Prestige visited U.S. ports a minimum of 27 times. It docked in Houston and Galveston twice. It moored in Corpus Christi, where it was fined in 1993 for dumping plastic garbage into the ocean and failing to install scuppers, which prevent leaks during oil transfers. It spilled so much oil that authorities required the captain to pay a $10,000 deposit to cover pollution claims. A year later, the Prestige entered the Port of Guayanilla in Puerto Rico without a working radar. It was cited there the next year because the emergency shutdown function on an oil pump was broken. And two years later, near a precarious stretch of Mississippi river channels, the Prestige lost its starboard anchor.

U.S. inspectors may have found so many problems with the Prestige because an ABS surveyor had missed them. But they also could have been overlooked by an inspector with the Bahamas Maritime Authority. The Bahamas was the Prestige's "flag state." Every ship must fly the flag of a nation and abide by that nation's laws. But some flags enforce tougher rules than others. The Bahamian flag is one of more than two dozen cited by the International Transport Federation as particularly weak. Critics of the shipping industry call them "flags of convenience." Although flags of convenience presided over nearly a quarter of the world's fleet in 2001, they accounted for more than half of the losses at sea.

Hundreds of ships fly the Bahamian flag. But the maritime authority's office in the Bahamas, which occupies the same building as The Essence Hair and Nail Salon and a duty-free liquor store, has only four employees. Captain Glenward Bain, the only ship inspector on staff in the Bahamas, explained that most of the office's other employees long ago relocated to Great Britain. Only the London office had the authority to answer questions about the Prestige, he said. But he offered a seat on a couch and a thought on why ship owners choose to register in his country. "We have a very good legislative framework as far as marine laws are involved," he said, chewing on a piece of gum.

John Sansome, until recently the director of the ITF Flags of Convenience office in Washington, D.C., put it a bit differently: "These people have so much leeway in circumventing laws," he said. "It's just pathetic."

Besides the Bahamas, ABS and the occasional inspector from a country such as the United States, nobody was looking out for the safety of the Prestige. Crown Resources, the company that chartered the ship, had little reason to care if it sank. Oil traders typically insure their cargoes for 110 percent of their value, which means Crown probably netted $1 million in profit after the Prestige went down. Greek-controlled Mare Shipping, the owner of the Prestige, was similarly shielded from liability. Mare is registered as a corporation in war-torn Liberia, where looters and troops gutted most government buildings last year in an uprising against the country's dictator. Even if Mare could be brought to court, it would scarcely matter. Its only asset was the Prestige.

"Ships aren't the same as they used to be," Linkester said. "There's not the nice, neat owner of the ship and a crew that works on that ship all the time. Nowadays, there are all sorts of people who have a diffuse interest in the ship, and the result is a fragmentation of responsibility."

Dopico long ago stopped believing that the fishermen of A Coruña could count on anyone to protect them from a spill like the Prestige. He was a young man when a tanker called the Urquiola belched 110,000 tons of oil into the town's port and halted fishing for three months. Another tanker dumped 66,000 tons of petroleum nearby just three years later. And in 1992, the Aegean Sea cracked and leaked 88,000 tons' worth of flaming oil as far as the estuary near his home. "The smoke stained our houses," he said, "and we had to dislodge the people who died, asphyxiated."

Ten years later, fishing had just recovered in A Coruña when the Prestige unleashed its toxic tide. The oil spread beyond the town's beaches, as far north as the Bordeaux region of France. Tens of thousands of sea birds died. Laura Garcia Petero, a student in A Coruña who volunteered to rescue wildlife, said the oil was so thick that her work involved a lot of guessing. "We didn't know what was just oil and what was a bird," she said. "Everything was so desolate, and all of the life on the beach was so destroyed, that to look for them we had to rely on impressions."

The environmental damage devastated the Galician economy. Galicia's waters teem with sought-after sea creatures ranging from goose barnacles to spider crabs and support the largest fishing fleet in Europe. The spill grounded fishermen for months along the province's entire Atlantic coast -- directly or indirectly affecting more than 100,000 workers. Xoan Ramon Doldan Garcia, a fisheries economist at Galicia's University of Santiago de Compostela, estimates the fishing industry will require a decade to recover. The European Union pegged cleanup costs at $5 billion.

The Spanish government sent boats to vacuum the clumps of crude from the waters off A Coruña, but they were no match for the five-foot waves. That was when Dopico realized that the only hope for the town's fishermen was to net the oil themselves. He organized a flotilla of fishing boats that scouted the coast for incoming oil slicks and scooped up the black goo with low-tech tools shaped like tennis rackets. "Simply with poles and sacks we cleaned more than the ships with their super-suckers and super-rigs," he said, "and we demonstrated how you combat an oil spill."

The cooperation between the fishermen of A Coruña and those beyond helped spark a new sense of solidarity throughout Galicia and a volatile indignation. Some of this sentiment derived from Spain's budding environmental movement, which coined a phrase to describe the catastrophe: ecological genocide. Yet as understanding of the consequences of the spill deepened, so did a collective sense of history, and a conviction grew that after so many oil spills, this must be the last. In the months following the disaster, more than 200 organizations joined a new alliance founded in the oil-drenched Galician town of Vigo a day after the Prestige sank. The group was simply called Nunca Mais! ("Never Again!").

The protests launched by Nunca Mais! against Spain's slow response to the spill were so large that they shed doubt on the political future of the government's prime minister, Jose Maria Anzar. A few days after the shipwreck, more than 100,000 people protested in Santiago de Compostela -- more than the town's entire population. In the weeks that followed, tens of thousands of demonstrators clogged the streets in towns from Pontevedra to Madrid. They painted their faces with black tears, carried reproductions of oil-drenched birds or wore the apocalyptic-looking masks donned by cleanup workers. When Anzar visited A Coruña, hundreds of people shouted slogans at him such as "Anzar, out of Galicia!" and "Resignation!"

Yet in recent months the protests have faded. Spain and France banned single-hull tankers from carrying heavy oil in their waters. The European Union pledged to crack down on classification societies. And the Spanish government is building its case against ABS. But many fishermen feel no solidarity with the hand-wringing masses. Decades of broken promises have bred a bitter resilience. "We are a special caste that knows how to turn our guts into our hearts when we have to," Dopico said. "This is what the world has to understand."

It was thus that Dopico resolved to begin fishing again last month. He set off before sunrise over the tired waves and cast his 2,000 hooks into the sea. All day his crew hauled up sea snakes. The six-month ban on fishing had produced a bonanza of marine life. But the next week the catch was smaller. And the next week smaller still. Until a third of the hooks came up gleaming and empty. "This damned accident was caused by the avarice of the people," he said, "simply the avarice of the people." And reeling in that greed may well take more than 2,000 hooks and the briefs of 2,000 lawyers.

Because when the water turns blue, the people forget.


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