Wednesday, 1st June 2011
PORT EXPLOSION SETS OFF MAJOR EMERGENCY
• Welder suffers severe burns
by Brian Reyes
An oil storage tank exploded in the port of Gibraltar yesterday afternoon, just metres from where a cruise ship was berthed.
The explosion blew the lid off the tank and sent a fireball high into the air. The buckled steel lid lay on the quayside on the Western Arm metres away from the tank, indicating the force of the explosion.
Two people who were carrying out welding work on the tank were injured in the blast. One of them, a 40-year old Spanish national from La Linea, suffered serious, extensive and life-threatening burns.
Last night he was in St Bernard’s ICU where his condition was critical. The authorities were hoping to transfer him to a specialist unit in Seville. The other injured worker, a 25 year old also Spanish national, did not suffer serious injuries.
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Some passengers on board the cruise ship Independence of the Seas also sustained injuries as a result of the explosion. A half-metre piece of steel from the tank landed on the ship and some passengers suffered minor burns and fractures.
“Ten guests sustained minor injuries and have received medical treatment on board,” said Surinder Manku, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean International.
The ship sailed immediately after the blast, leaving two passengers behind.
George Dyke, the company’s local agent, said arrangements were being made to reunite the passengers with the vessel in Cannes, its next port of call.
As fire and dense black smoke billowed from the tank, the mobile phone network in Gibraltar collapsed with panicked people frantically trying to find out what was happening.
“There was a loud blast,” said Giles Lopez, a resident of the nearby Gib V estate. “The windows shook violently and the shock lifted the curtains.”
Last night emergency services were fighting to control the blaze but as this edition went to press at 9pm, the fire had not been extinguished.
Throughout the afternoon an intense fireball sent up dense plumes of black smoke that drifted over the town, prompting authorities to urge people to keep their windows shut.
The incident started at around 3.40pm and emergency services rushed to the scene to set up an exclusion zone around the tanks, which are used by local company S.O.R.T to store waste oil products from ships for re-processing.
Officials made no statement yesterday as to what was inside the tanks but an investigation was underway last night to determine the cause of the blast and establish why hot works were being carried out in the area.
Industry sources said the tank contained a mixture of water and oily waste. Estimates as to how much was in there ranged from 300 to 800 cubic metres, but there was no official confirmation on any of these details. No one at S.O.R.T could be reached for comment.
Nothing had been ruled out as to the cause of the fire but police sources said there were no indications that this was a terrorist act.
“Initial reports indicate that at the time of the explosion two workers were carrying out welding operations on top of the tank that exploded,” the Gibraltar Government said in a statement that was issued just after 8.30 pm.
“The precise cause of the accident remains under investigation.”
Despite the exclusion zone and official advice to stay away, many people wandered down to the waterfront to see for themselves what was happening.
At the GASA swimming club, just a few hundred metres from the tanks, people sat in chairs watching the emergency services trying to control the blaze.
The City Fire Brigade and the Environmental Agency advised that there was no need to evacuate the nearby buildings, though residents were advised to keep their windows closed as a precaution against the smoke.
The City Fire Brigade and the Defence Fire Service had deployed seven fire trucks to the scene and 32 firemen were involved in the operation.
Several local tugs were also called in to help keep the blaze under control.
For the first four hours no help was requested from Spain, although it had been offered early on in the incident.
Throughout the afternoon, the main initial focus of the fire fighting operation was on hosing the adjacent tanks to stop them from overheating, as well as trying to extinguish the fire itself.
However the situation worsened at around 7.40pm when, despite the best efforts of local teams, the fire intensified and eventually caused the first tank to collapse. An adjacent tank also caught fire.
At that point, several Spanish salvage tugs with specialist fire-fighting equipment were rapidly deployed.
They included two tugs hired by the Gibraltar Government from a Spanish contractor and one belonging to the Spanish maritime rescue service, Salvamento Marítimo.
Questions were being asked last night by Spanish politicians in the Campo area as to why it took so long for Gibraltar to request this specialist help.
La Linea’s Popular Party mayor, Alejandro Sánchez, said he would file a formal complaint with the EU over Gibraltar’s handling of the incident.
As this edition closed, the fire fighting operation was still in full swing but the fire fighters appeared to be gaining the upper hand.
As well as the fire itself, there were also concerns that the blaze may have caused some oil pollution on the sea.
Last night the Government’s Civil Contingency Committee remained in permanent meeting to assess the unfolding situation.