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French Oil Tanker Breaks in Half

December 13, 1999

BREST, France (AP) _ A tanker carrying about 8 million gallons of diesel oil broke in two during a violent sea storm Sunday and began leaking oil off the northwest coast of France, officials said.

The captain of the Maltese-registered tanker, Erika, called for help at 6 a.m. local time (midnight EST) while the boat was tossing in heavy waves off the coast of Brittany, according to a statement from the port authority in Brest, the Maritime Prefecture.

The 26-member crew was evacuated by French and British rescue teams, and no one was harmed, authorities said.

The tanker split in half about 60 miles south of the northwest port city of Brest. It had left Rotterdam in the Netherlands and was heading to Leghorn, Italy.

Brest Port authority captain Yves Merle estimated that between 600,000 and 1.5 million gallons of diesel oil had leaked into the ocean already, and that it would be at least two days before there would be a risk of oil washing up on the coast.

It was still unclear why the 15-tank vessel broke in half, though ocean conditions were extremely turbulent. The captain’s help call signaled ``serious structural problems″ with the tanker before it split.

Officials called in the powerful Abeille-Flandre tugboat to pull one half of the tanker further from the coast into deep waters. The other severed section was floating vertically, and authorities said they would wait until the weather cleared to attempt to move it.

Despite the rough seas, teams began the first efforts at halting the leakage and another tugboat equipped with anti-pollution devices took off from Brest to survey the area.

If conditions improve Monday, a team will try to siphon oil out of the tanker onto another boat, Merle said. On Sunday, winds in the area were still at 50 miles per hour, and waves pitched to 26 feet high.

``Everything depends on the sea conditions, which today are still very bad,″ Merle said.

On Saturday, Merle told maritime officials that problems with the ship forced him to pause briefly at the port of Donges, but said the situation was under control.

A team from the Ministry of Transport has opened an investigation into the accident. The ship was built in Japan in 1975.

In 1978, Brittany witnessed the worst oil disaster in history when the Amoco Cadiz spilled an estimated 65 million gallons off the coast.

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