Category Archives: Classic Accidents

The Wreck of the Erika

Several important catastrophes were omitted from Flirting With Disaster, a necessity that I regret. People have their “favorites,” often for good reasons. A reader in India pointed out that leaving out Bhopal was unfortunate, and I agree. The story is an important one, and I plan to remedy my omission with a separate write up.

A second omission is that of marine accidents. I took a step toward remedying that with the recent post about the June 2008 capsizing of the ferry Princess of the Stars in the Philippines. I take another step with this post, a discussion of the wreck of the Erika in 1999 that caused France’s biggest environmental catastrophe. This matter has finally come to resolution by the courts, although there remain some important unanswered questions.

Wreck of the Erika 1999 (Reuters)

Wreck of the Erika 1999 (Reuters)

In early December 1999, the chartered tanker Erika left Dunkirk with 30,000 tonnes (9,500,000 gallons) of heavy fuel oil bound for Livorno, Italy. En route, she encountered heavy seas and split in half 45 miles off of Pointe de Penmarch, southern Brittany, dumping two-thirds of her toxic cargo into the sea. Between December and March, 20,000 tonnes of the oil came ashore on 250-300 miles of French Biscay coastline. According to estimates, the spill killed between 75,000 and 300,000 sea birds, by far the worst such calamity ever recorded, devastated local tourism, and threatened fishing and salt production. It took many years and 200 million euros to clean up the damage, although the local ecology may take longer to recover, if it ever does.

The Erika was chartered by Total S.A., the global oil giant that now combines the businesses of Total, the French oil and gas company, Petrofina, and Elf Aquitaine. Total is one of the four “super majors,” with 96,000 employees and 2007 sales of €158.7 billion.

During the nine years this matter has been in the courts (the actual trial only began in February 2007), Total claimed that it had relied on documentation that the Erika was seaworthy despite her worrying maintenance record, according to court investigations. Although the tanker had been allowed to continue to sail subject to a review scheduled for a month after the accident, Erika violated Total’s own safety protocols, although other investigations showed that the expert measurements of the extent of Erika’s corrosion would not have been easy for Total to assess. Still, in light of Erika’s extensive visible corrosion and spotty repair record, why was she chartered in the first place?

It appears that the Erika was the only ship available in Dunkirk at the time, and this prompted Total’s decision-makers to subordinate safety to business demands. One has to wonder what was so urgent, however, since there does not appear to be a time sensitive business matter of such consequence that it justified reckless behavior, and Total’s own decision rules would have argued against using the Erika. Furthermore, under the E.U. rules that applied in 1999, the tanker should not have been allowed to leave port, according to the court’s findings.

Nevertheless, in 1999 relevant European maritime safety regulations and enforcement were relatively lax, considering that 70 percent of Europe’s oil was transported near the ecologically and economically vulnerable Brittany coastline, and improving safety would only increase oil costs by one percent according to a 1998 U.S. National Research Council study. E.U. regulations were subsequently changed, although much too late for Erika’s many victims.

On January 16, 2008, a verdict was finally rendered by a French court. Total and Erika’s owner, Giuseppe Saverese, and its manager Antonio Pollara, were all found guilty, as was RINA, the Italian company that had declared the Erika seaworthy. Total was fined 375,000 euros, a modest amount but the maximum allowable, and ordered to pay a share of nearly 200 million euros in civil damages. (Total had already voluntarily paid the more than 200 million euros needed to clean up the environmental damage and pump out the remaining oil from the wrecked tanker.)

After the verdict, Total fell back on the division of responsibilities between the charterer — who, under international maritime law is not responsible for inspecting the vessel — and the ship’s owners. They also continued to question whether their failure to follow their own procedures — which go beyond that required by law — can rightly form a basis for liability. These may well be valid legal arguments, though not necessarily valid moral ones, since Total clearly created their internal rules for good reasons and in light of existing regulations.

It also remains to be seen whether the potentially massive environmental law suits permitted by the court against the defendants will be successful. Total’s liabilities may only be beginning.

(Eleven defendants, including Erika’s captain, were found not guilty for criminal charges for reckless endangerment. Total S.A. was also found not guilty on this charge.)

For our purposes, it seems clear that Erika’s age, single hull construction, and many maintenance problems should have prompted serious worries about its safety while plying the vulnerable and often treacherous winter waters of the English Channel. While it is true that Erika was documented as seaworthy, Total clearly knew better.

Like the timing of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, the reasons Erika had to sail are a mystery. Perhaps a reader of this blog has facts I lack to illuminate the answer to this fundamental question. Understanding reckless decision-making is essential to preventing the creation of harm. If you know anything, please let me know.



Who launched Challenger?

Hi all,

ChristaMacAuliffLast night on Coast to Coast AM, Daniel, Michael and I discussed the Challenger disaster, one of the best known disasters in American history. RK, a listener, wrote that we had unfairly accused President Reagan of making the launch decision. I don’t think that anyone on air said that President Reagan decided to launch Challenger, but it might be a good idea to set the record straight.

The pattern of the evidence points strongly to the existence of a plan for the President to speak with the Challenger crew during his State of the Union address the night Space Shuttle launched. Such celebrations of American heroes were a classic Reagan touch, and NASA had submitted just such a proposal to the White House some weeks before. A hookup to the spacecraft required the launch on that day, and at that time, in order to be ready, since Challenger had to be settled safely into orbit. Others at NASA and at the White House appeared to be trying to make this dramatic moment happen for the President.

My belief cannot be confirmed, of course, since the people who were directly involved have never been questioned under oath. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the natural desire to please the President (as well as for other, more practical reasons, such as ensuring military funding of the Space Shuttle program) encouraged a number decision-makers to push hard for a launch rather than to postpone. Postponements had already occurred in this Challenger mission for a variety of reasons, and a delay until the afternoon to allow the ice to melt (Rockwell’s concern) and the boosters to warm (Thiokol’s concern) would not have been a big deal.

Without Reagan’s influence we are left with the question of why many levels of NASA administration would have overruled their contractors, who were certainly not in the habit of issuing dire warnings. We also are left with many questions about why the Rogers Commission investigation steered a wide path around the White House’s involvement, including the Commission’s failure to put various people on the record, or to collect certain documents and records that might have provided the American people with a better picture of why Challenger launched when it did. (The actual O-ring failure had been established definitively when the booster rockets were recovered: there was a hole in the casing large enough for a man to crawl through.)

Based on the evidence to date, it remains unconfirmed whether Reagan knew of the concerns raised about Challenger’s safety and made the launch decision. Certainly, he denied having done so. In my book, I reference Richard C. Cook’s Challenger Revealed (2006) that quotes Reagan’s astrologer Ed Helin, a man who clearly places the decision with the President. (Cook was a key government whistle-blower in the Challenger case and assembled evidence over many years.) Even without Helin’s accusation, it is important to understand that risks are often taken to please bosses, or at least not to disappoint them, even when the bosses do not give the order that puts people in harms way.

Although it is a heavy burden, all leaders must to be concerned about the unintended consequences of their behavior and the actions undertaken in their name, even when misguided. That President Reagan was apparently devastated by this decision taken on his behalf, even if not necessarily by his order, makes the Challenger disaster all the more tragic.


The analysis of the Challenger disaster appears in chapter 4 of Flirting With Disaster.