As the breakup of the oil tanker Prestige turned into a slow-motion disaster, Spaniards' early focus on cleaning up the mess gave way today to second-guesses and recriminations.
The first of many pointed questions from residents of the Galician coast was why a rickety, 26-year-old, single-hulled ship was sailing so close to shore. Under international treaties, they pointed out, oil shippers have until 2015 to junk single-hulled vessels and exclusively use double-hulled ships that offer an extra measure of safety by having external and internal shells. And European Union rules already say that tankers must stay 21 miles off shore -- a statute especially important along this storm-prone area called the Coast of Death.
"At the Coast of Death, 100 miles would be better," remarked Manuel Insua, who has fished for 40 years. "If a ship wrecks at 21 miles, it can drift ashore in two days."
Spanish Defense Minister Federico Trillo revealed that officials earlier in the crisis considered bombing the Prestige to try to incinerate the fuel. But Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's government rejected the proposal as too risky.
The decision to tow the vessel south and out to sea after it got into trouble Nov. 13 also aroused criticism. If the Prestige had been towed into harbor, the damage would have been heavy, but localized, residents of the region complained. Instead, pollution from the 20 million gallons of fuel oil carried by the ship might spread hundreds of miles.
An official of a Dutch salvage firm, contracted to find a way to empty the Prestige of oil, criticized officials' strategy in remarks published in El Pais, a Madrid newspaper. "We would have preferred that the ship had been brought into a bay, and there pump the fuel to another vessel," said Lars Wilder, a spokesman for Smit International.
"No doubt, it could have been over quickly," mused Martin Vallejo, a visiting physician from Madrid surveying the sea at Fisterra. "But which port town would have volunteered? And how would the government choose?"
Newspapers in Portugal complained that towing the ship far southwest needlessly endangered the Portuguese coast. In Spain, Jorge Pueyo, an international law professor at Santiago University, labeled the move illegal. "When an ecological disaster occurs, it is illegal to move it or try to move the area of contamination," he told reporters.
The possible scope of the disaster exposed a lack of equipment in Galicia to reduce the ill effects. Only one ship along the coast was readily available with mechanisms to vacuum sludge off the sea's surface. Another ship arrived from the Netherlands. Fishermen complained about the lack of buoys and nets to form floating dikes.
"We're very bothered by the lack of barriers to block the entrance of our fjord," said Cati Montesinos, a spokesman for the fishermen's guild of Pontevedra, a town in the Rias Bajas region to the south. Other ports have reported a lack of bulldozers to scoop up oil from beaches.
Fixing responsibility may be difficult. It was leased by the Russian Alfa Bank group and loaded with fuel in Lithuania. It was owned by a shell company registered in the Bahamas, insured by a company in London and piloted by a Greek captain. It was heading for Gibraltar.
Spanish police have detained the captain, Apostolos Mangouras, on charges of causing ecological damage and disobeying coast guard orders to let tug boats tie onto the ship and tow it away. The Prestige was drifting along Galicia's north coast after its side burst during a storm.
On the eighth day since the huge ship first leaked fuel, residents braced for a second wave to wash up on areas yet untouched. About half of the oil spilled by the Prestige -- about 2 million gallons so far -- is wandering in the currents to the southwest of Fisterra, Spain's westernmost point.
Fishermen in the Rias Bajas inlets feverishly harvested mussels and other delicacies that cling to the rocks, to get them out of the water and to market before oil pours in on the tide. Weather forecasters predicted a gale from the west. The fishermen feared it would push the oil toward them. Workers strung buoys and nets across inlets, hoping to keep out the gobs of fuel.
No one seemed to hold hopes that the big slick would simply disappear. The prevailing late autumn winds here blow from the southwest and west. Only a masterstroke of luck can keep the sludge from hitting somewhere along the Rias Bajas or the shore north of Fisterra.
"There aren't enough saints in all Spain to keep the black tide away," said Maria del Bravo, a hairdresser.
The first oil landings have cost the government $42 million to clean up. The Prestige spill has also brought to a halt a $300 million-a-year fishing industry on part of the coast. The ship lies broken in two at the bottom of the sea 150 miles offshore, its tanks still holding millions of gallons of fuel. Spotter helicopters and planes have reported no new leaks of the entombed oil.
Residents of Galicia, historically a poor region of Spain, have taken the disaster stoically. Galicians are used to sea disasters. A plaque on a monument in Fisterra is dedicated to "those who lost their life off these coasts. Your memory is in our hearts like an anchor."
"We know this is an angry sea," said Insua, the fisherman. "This is a sea of disasters."