At 1900 hours on July 19, 1979, the 288,000-deadweight-ton (dwt) Atlantic Empress and the 207,000-dwt Aegean Captain collided in the Caribbean Sea. In the fiery aftermath of the accident, 27 crewmen lost their lives. There was a strong possibility that a total of 3.5 million barrels of crude oil would be spilled; this would have been the largest spill to that time. Nearby islands with their tourist beaches and coral reefs were threatened. And yet, even though the Atlantic Empress eventually sank after burning for 14 days, no oil came ashore and no indications of any environmental damage were observed.
This paper provides a chronicle of the events of the days following the collision, including (1) activation of the Clean Caribbean Cooperative equipment stockpile, (2) airlifting 13 planeloads of ftrefighting foam, oil transfer gear, dispersants and pollution control equipment, (3) assembling an expert response team with an operation based on Trinidad, (4) providing four single-engine aircraft dispersant-spraying capability, and (5) mounting a major firefighting effort on board the burning ship.
The Atlantic Empress was the largest ship ever to sink. However, through a coordinated response effort and considerable assistance from natural forces, no harmful pollution resulted.