JULY 1979: THE ATLANTIC EMPRESS DISASTER OFF THE COAST OF TRINIDAD

June 03, 2018

At about 19:00 hours on July 19, 1979, the Atlantic Empress and the Aegean Captain super tankers, both fully laden, collided off the coast of Trinidad and Tobago during a tropical storm. The 347 meters long Atlantic Empress was built at Odense Steel Shipyard in Denmark and launched in February 1974. At the time of the collision Atlantic Empress was sailing from Saudi Arabia to Beaumont, Texas, with a cargo of light crude oil owned by Mobil Oil. Aegean Captain was en route to Singapore from Aruba. In heavy rain the two ships did not sight each other and impacted, with the Empress tearing a hole in the Captain’s starboard bow. Large fires began on each ship. The fire aboard the Aegean Captain was tamed by her crew, but the blaze on the Atlantic Empress raged uncontrolled. The burning tanker was towed towards the open sea. Despite the response team’s efforts a series of explosions shook the ship. The 29 July saw a more powerful explosion and the fire increased. 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. 26 seamen lost their life in the tragedy. An estimated 287,000 tonnes of oil was spilled from the Atlantic Empress, which makes this the largest ship-source spill ever recorded. No impact studies were carried out, so it is not known what quantity of oil was burned or sank. Only very minor shore pollution was reported on nearby islands. (Image: The Atlantic Express burning near Trinidad & Tobago in August 1979)