The day a burning Atlantic caught fire, and turned black
WEEKEND ARGUS reporter John Fensham was in a small plane circling the crippled 271 540- ton Spanish supertanker Castillo de Bellver, ablaze off Saldanha Bay, when, as the aircraft was forced to fly under the smoke-cloud, it “bucked and rolled in the turbulence and heat of the fire”.
Fensham described how “flames, at first restricted to the port side of the stricken tanker and a square-mile patch of sea on its downwind side, suddenly billowed 1 000m into the air. They enveloped the entire vessel in a ball of fire as its back broke and thousands of tons of oil erupted from its tanks”.
“Heaving in heavy seas and a strong north-westerly wind, the broken tanker was surrounded by fire as oil, which until then had been leaking only from the port side, burst into flames on the windward side and was blown directly on to the ship.
“Black smoke, underlaid by a cloud of steam from waterspouts generated in the lee of the ship and by vaporised waves breaking over the deck, rose 1 000m into the air and stretched at least 30 miles towards the Cape’s West Coast.
“The rolling Atlantic swells, probably between 4-5m high, heaved themselves on to the deck as it buckled with the heat, and were immediately vaporised, the white steam incongruous amid the red and black of the inferno.” The following was the lead report that Saturday. August 6, 1983 Tanker Inferno
More than a quarter million tons of heavy crude oil have been released into the sea off Saldanha Bay following the break-up of the 271 540-ton Spanish supertanker Castillo de Bellver, which caught fire 40km off Saldanha Bay early today.
Thirty-three crew members have been rescued and three are missing, presumed dead.
In spite of one of the most extensive disaster prevention operations mounted on the South African coast, the fully-laden 334m tanker, which caught fire and was abandoned by her crew at 1.30am, has presented the world with one of the biggest maritime disasters and has left South Africa with its gravest pollution threat.
However, latest reports say the south-westerly gale is abat- ing and lessening the threat of coastal pollution.
The first of two Kuswag anti- pollution vessels, with more than 120 tons of chemical dispersant, have reached the oil slick… Hundreds of tons of chemical oil dispersant is also being rushed to Cape Town…
A 20-mile long and threemile wide oil slick is reported to be wallowing on the ocean surface. About 400m of the slick and the bow of the vessel are reported to be burning fiercely.
The stricken Castillo de Bellver, off Saldanha Bay.