Friday, July 11, 2008

July 11

Thirty years ago today, a truck carrying 23 tons of liquid propylene – nearly four tons more than the law permitted – slammed into a concrete wall and exploded just outside a seaside campsite near Tarragona, Spain. The resulting fireball, which fanned out across a 300-meter area, incinerated everything in its path and left a crater five feet deep and 65 feet wide. Secondary blasts, caused by exploding automobiles and portable butane stoves, ricocheted throughout the site, which at the time hosted roughly a thousand tourists from Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere. Well over 100 people died instantly, flash fried at temperatures of at least 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, while more than a hundred others endured severe burns that would kill them in the days and weeks to come. Though most of the victims were torched beyond recognition, forensic workers managed to identify each of the bodies – a remarkable feat under the circumstances.

In all, the Los Alfaques disaster claimed 217 lives, including the driver of the doomed tanker. During the subsequent investigation, police learned that both the transport company and petrol refinery had routinely colluded in overloading vehicles. Cisternas Reunidas, which was responsible for shipping the propylene, had instructed its drivers to avoid the toll motorways and use the national roads instead. This choice saved the company a few thousand pesetas, the contemporary equivalent of 15 Euros; four years after the accident, the shipping company and refinery paid out nearly ten million times that amount in damages to the survivors and the families of those who died.

The Los Alfaques camp fire spurred new hazardous materials regulations throughout the world. It also led to the development of new international standards – based solely on dental, fingerprint or DNA evidence -- for identifying bodies in the wake of similar disasters.

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