Los Alfaques disaster
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|Date||11 July 1978|
The Los Alfaques disaster was a road accident and tanker explosion which occurred on 11 July 1978 in Alcanar, near Tarragona, in Spain. The tanker truck was loaded with 23 tons of highly flammable liquefied propylene. 217 people (including the driver) were killed and 200 more severely burned.
Most of the victims were vacationers in the Los Alfaques seaside campsite. The campsite is located at km 159 on the N-340 national road, 2 km south of the town of Sant Carles de la Ràpita. It has been renovated since and still exists today.
The truck, consisting of a Pegaso tractor unit registered M-7034-C and a Fruehauf semi-trailer tanker registered M-7981-R, was owned by Cisternas Reunidas S.A. At 10:15 that day, the truck, driven by 50-year old Francisco Imbernón Villena, arrived at the state-owned ENPETROL refinery, located at La Pobla de Mafumet, 9 km North of Tarragona, to be loaded with propylene for another state-owned company, Paular (now REPSOL), from Puertollano.
At 12:05 the truck left the refinery carrying 23 tons of propylene, nearly 4 tons over the maximum design load of 19.35 tons. The tanker drivers were under instructions to take the smaller N-340 national road instead of the larger A-7 motorway when carrying cargo to Barcelona, in order to avoid the motorway toll. The N-340 was much narrower and more winding than the A-7, and also carried drivers directly through several densely populated areas.
On a summer day with temperatures from 20–35 °C (68-95 °F), the pressure in the tank would have been 1,200–1,700 kPa (170–250 psi).
The disaster occurred at ca. 14:35, while the truck was moving past the Los Alfaques campsite after having travelled 102 km. The driver's watch, which was found intact still attached to the driver's burned wrist, had stopped at 14:36, the time of the explosion.
There are several different witness reports as to the events directly preceding the blast, all of which are more or less equally plausible. Some reported the tank was already leaking as it approached the site, or sprung a leak with a loud bang while passing the site, and was then stopped by the driver. Others reported the bang being caused by a blown tire which caused the truck to swerve out of control and strike the wall separating the campsite from the roadside, possibly overturning in the process.
In either case, the leaking tanker formed a cloud of gaseous propylene that partially entered the campsite and also drifted on the wind towards a discothèque to the northeast. The white cloud attracted the attention of campsite patrons, who approached the cloud with curiosity as it continued to spread. As the cloud began to permeate the crowded discothèque, it reached an ignition source and immediately flashed back into the tanker, causing a fire that nearly instantaneously ruptured the weakened tank and ignited the full load of gas.
At that time the campsite to the south was crowded with nearly 1000 vacationers, mostly German and other foreign tourists, packed tightly in trailers and tents. The blast and fireball (which was estimated at over 1000 °C and left a 65'x5' [19.8 x 1.5 meters] crater) destroyed everything – cars, trailers and buildings – within a 300-metre radius, gutting over 90% of the main camping area. The discothèque to the northeast, which was later determined to be the likely source of the ignition, was also razed, killing all the staff members inside.
Victims and emergency response
The explosion and fireball instantly killed the driver and other people within the area. A total of 157 people died on site as a result of the initial explosion and the subsequent fires and explosions of cars and gas cylinders used by the tourists. Victims were seen with their hair and clothing aflame running into the sea in an attempt to extinguish the flames.
In the first 45 minutes after the disaster, the wounded were removed in an uncoordinated fashion with the help of other survivors using their own cars and vans. Locals also provided help and took the wounded to the hospitals. Ambulances and other emergency forces gradually arrived. The Civil Guard and the armed forces searched the devastated camp for survivors. It took 3 hours until the last wounded was removed and taken to hospital.
The burning tanker blocked the road, dividing the injured into two groups, one being taken northwards and the other southwards. On the road to the north, the injured received adequate medical care, once they had reached either the hospitals at Amposta or at Tortosa. At this stage, the final destination of 58 severely burned patients was the Francisco Franco Hospital in Barcelona. 82 severely burned patients were taken south to the La Fe Hospital in Valencia. In most cases no medical steps of any importance were taken during the journey. Several of the injured developed severe shock on the journey and had no measurable blood pressure on arrival. Many of the patients had burns covering more than 90% of their bodies, and most of them died during the following days. Contributing to the high mortality figure was the inappropriate medical care given en route to the hospital.
In the week following the disaster, the patients from France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands were evacuated to their own countries.
300 people were wounded, some of them severely. 217 people died as a result of the disaster, while the total number of people who died over the following months as a result of their injuries was at least 270. Among them, four were Spaniards, and all the others were foreigners. The official figure for the number of victims is 215.
Many of the victims were burned beyond recognition. Most of them were wearing only swimming suits, and the building where their documents were stored was destroyed in the explosion. There was no DNA test available at that time. As a result of the work done by the forensic teams from the tourists' home countries, all the victims were eventually identified.
Seven of the victims remained unidentified until some time later, and they were interred at the cemetery of Tortosa (Tarragona). The bodies of a French family, consisting of a couple and their two children, were returned to France some years later, after compensation had been settled. The bodies of another family of three originating from Colombia were never sent home, and they remain the only foreigners to be interred at the cemetery of Tortosa along with local victims.
Following the accident, Cisternas Reunidas accepted responsibility for the disaster, but denied any order or prohibition to the drivers to use the motorway instead of the national road, claiming that it is the driver who chooses which road to take. Later, some workers at the Tarragona plant stated they heard Imbernón heatedly arguing with someone on the phone and demanding money for the motorway toll. Enpetrol initially declined any responsibility, claiming that the delivery of the cargo is on the carrier's responsibility, and they have not received any complaint.
The official inquiry identified that the truck had been severely overloaded, and also lacked emergency pressure release valves, which are designed to help prevent a BLEVE in case of a fire. However, these valves were no longer mandatory in 1978, although they previously were. The truck was due for an inspection check-over in 1980, and it had passed the previous inspection.
The tank container was manufactured at 13 December 1973 by a workshop from Bilbao, and at that time it did not meet the requirements for carrying flammable liquids, since it lacked emergency pressure release valves. Therefore, the tank had been used to carry other substances, some of which were highly corrosive. Tests on the remnants of the steel tank revealed microscopic stress cracks consistent with corrosion caused by previous loads of improperly overpressurized anhydrous ammonia. Combined with whether the tanker suffered an impact that caused additional structural damage, these factors likely led to the almost instantaneous rupture of the tank when the flames flashed back into the tanker. Even without safety valves, a structurally sound and properly filled tanker should have been able to maintain structural integrity in a fire long enough to at least allow nearby people to escape.
The inquiry also revealed that overloading of tankers was common practice at ENPETROL refineries. The Tarragona facility lacked either a meter to measure the amount of gas dispensed or an automatic shut-off device to prevent overfilling, and consequently most tanks were consistently overloaded. The driver was neither informed of the overloading, nor about the type and class of the cargo, and there was no means for him to check the pressure level of the tank before he departed or to monitor it in transit. He had not attended the HAZMAT training program for drivers of dangerous goods, because the company considered his experience of 20 years as a truck driver to be sufficient. The inquiry also determined that, between 3 January and 7 July that year, 32 tanks left the Tarragona refinery overloaded, with drivers other than Imbernón.
After the tragedy, the transit of populated areas by vehicles carrying dangerous cargo was prohibited in Spain, and would only be driven at night.
In 1982, four employees of ENPETROL and two of Cisternas Reunidas were convicted of criminal negligence, and were sentenced to prison for between one and four years. Later, four of them were released after appealing the Court's decision, and all prison sentences were suspended or reduced. The two companies paid an equivalent of €13.23 million (not allowing for inflation) as compensation to the victims.
In popular culture
The accident is featured in the 2007 German film Day of Disaster, directed by Peter Keglevic. However, the film is loosely based on real facts, and contains blunders and factual errors, such as cars or registration plates which could only have appeared years later, or the driver spending the night before at home with the already (over)loaded tanker parked in front of his house.
Los Alfaques today
Six months after the tragedy, the completely renovated campsite was reopened to tourists. 
The owners of the Los Alfaques campsite have sought relief through Spanish courts under the newly approved "Right to Be Forgotten" Act passed by Spain in regard to having the disaster land as the top 12 search results on Google, including thumbnail disturbing images of remains and coroner procedures during cleanup of the campground. The trial was dismissed, informing the plaintiffs that they would need to pursue a U.S. lawsuit against Google.
- The Czech magazine "Svět motorů" (The World of Motors) No.36/1978
- Hymes, Boydell, Prescott, & The Institution of Chemical Engineers (Great Britain). Thermal Radiation 2: Physiological and Pathological Effects. IChemE Pub, 1996. Appx. 5, Case Hist. 1, pp. 97–110.
- Photos of the truck at bomberiles.com. Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- "Gas Encyclopedia, Vapor Pressure Graph, Propene". Air Liquide.
- Burn Centre, University Hospital, Uppsala, Sweden doi:10.1016/0305-4179(81)90104-2
- Microsoft Word – Sentencia Alfaques.doc. (PDF) . Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- Diario de Córdoba, 11/07/2003 (in Spanish). Diariocordoba.com. Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- Article in Spanish
- Article in Spanish. Traficoadr.com. Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- Photos of the tank container at bomberiles.com. Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- Movie review at IMDB
- Article in Spanish. Traficoadr.com. Retrieved on 11 July 2011.
- Anderson, Nate (February 12, 2012). "Spain asks: If Google search results make your business look bad, can you sue?". Ars Technica. Retrieved July 2013.
- Time magazine article
- A Spanish article about the accident, including photos of the truck remnants
- An article about the accident in "El Pais" (in Spanish)
- An article about the trial in "El Pais" (in Spanish)
- Los Alfaques campsite web page
- A collection of articles about Los Alfaques disaster (in Spanish)
- Scan of article from Czech magazine Svět Motorů No. 36/1978
- "Day of Disaster (Aka Tarragona - Ein Paradies in Flammen)". IMDB. 2007.