The man at the helm of the oil tanker Prestige, Captain Apostolos Mangouras, Greek, now aged 78, sent the SOS shortly after three o’clock in the afternoon. It was a Wednesday – November 13. The ship had already been in poor condition and had a structural fault but it had all the necessary papers to sail. The government ordered the vessel towed out to sea.
The court would rule this was the right decision.
Captain Mangouras said it was the government’s fault that this led the Prestige to spill most of its oil – 77,000 tonnes. He refused to leave the listing ship. Then he refused to let it be towed.
He demanded the order come from the ship’s owners. He argued with Spanish coast guard control headquarters. He disobeyed the authorities.
The hull at this point was still only cracked. The Spanish, the Portuguese and the French had denied the Prestige permission to enter their ports.
It was 24 hours after the distress signal had been sent that the tug Ría de Vigo hitched up. The tanker was less than six kilometres from Cabo Fisterra by now, on Galicia’s Costa da Morte. Madrid wanted it towed further out.
For five days, the damaged tanker was trailed on an erratic course northwest then southwest – leaking.
On the morning of the 19th, it broke. It sank 400 kilometres from the coast.
From the wreck four kilometres down oil kept coming out. Currents and winds on the surface carried it towards the shores of northern Spain and southwestern France.
It also blackened northern Portugal. Many thousands of volunteers waded in it, handled it, were exposed to it – risking their health. Fishing was banned for months. A lot of wildlife was wiped out.
The then deputy prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who is from the Galicia region, at first said the black in the sea was just “small threads of clay”. Today he is prime minister. His boss in 2002, Jose Maria Aznar, never visited the disaster zone. He sent Rajoy and King Juan Carlos.