Salvage tugboats towed the collision crippled supertanker Argean Captain back toward Trinidad today, still leaking oil but possibly headed for port.
Government officials and agents for the vessel said it was last reported some 17 miles north of here and that tentative plans have been made to anchor the vessel for a damage survey just off Trinidad's northeastern coast provided its diminishing oil leak can be brought under control.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Empress, which collided with the Aegean Captain last Thursday night off Tobago, was being towed north still aflame and shedding a long but dissipating oil slick.
The collision was the first ever between fully loaded supertankers. Their combined 3.5 million barrels of crude oil amounted to about one-fifth the daily petroleum consumption of the United States, and threatened to produce the largest oil spill of all time.
Donald Heath, corporate director of environmental affairs for Mobil Oil Company, which owns the Atlantic Empress' 2 million barrel cargo, said that ship's last reported position was about 45 miles northeast of the eastern tip of Tobago. Heath, who flew over the vessel this morning, said that fire aboard the ship had diminished considerably since Saturday and that Mobil was still deliberating over plans to try to put it out.
"the more that burns," Heath said, "the less there is spilling into the water."
Of the vessel's 20 mammoth cargo tanks, only five -- holding some 518,000 barrels of oil -- appear to have been damaged, he said, and most of that oil appears to be still in the ship.
He said the tanker's starboard deck is awash and that engineers estimate the ship is now leaking about 105 barrels of oil per hour, which "compared to what we might have had in not a lot of oil."
He said the Atlantic Empress is presently trailing an oil slick about 70 miles to 80 miles long. About 50 miles of the slick, he said, is a thin gray irridescent sheen, barely visible and harmless to animal life. The main portion of the oil slick is 15 miles long and two miles wide, he said.
The slick is obviously breaking down, he said. Although the thin film at the end of the slick extends almost to the island of Grenada, he said the prevailing current should carry that away from any shore.
The slick behing the Aegean Captian, Heath said, is much smaller -- extending perhaps 1 to 5 miles. He said a tugboat donated by Texaco was spraying chemicals on that to speed its decomposition.
Texaco is one of more than a dozen oil companies engaged in cleanup efforts here as part of an industry consortium called "Clean Caribbean."
Sunday morning, the consortium dispatched four planes and four boats to attack a spill they assumed was descending on the pristine beaches of tiny Tobago. They found "the sea and sn were doing a bettwr job than we could have," Heath said. "It was breaking up on its own."
Meanwhile Mobil officials, like everyone else here, are trying to find who owns the 1.5 million barrels of oil aboard the Aegean Captain.
The vessel was supposedly carrying oil bound from the Persian Gulf to Singapore by way of the Netherlands Antilles -- a curious route that even the arcane workings of the oil business won't easily explain.
David B. Archer, a Trinidad agent for the Aegean Captain, has disclaimed any knowledge of either who owns the vessel or why it was travelling on that course.
But government officials here and oil company executives say it appears increasingly likely the cargo was being laundered through the Caribbean and was actually bound for some country under trade embargo by the Arab states -- most likely either South Africa or Israel.