Over 200 Fatally Burned In Propylene Tanker Blast

Over 200 Fatally Burned In Propylene Tanker Blast


Campsite area in San Carlos de la Rapita, Spain, shows total burnout from flaming propylene released by highway tanker that exploded

Photos from National Burn Victims Foundation

More than 200 persons were fatally burned when a highway tank truck carrying liquefied propylene exploded and a vapor cloud ignited a vacation campsite in Spain.

There were 900 vacationers at the campsite in San Carlos de la Rapita in the Province of Tarragona on the northern Mediterranean coast of Spain when the tragedy occurred last July 11. One third of the campsite, a favorite spot for many families from Germany, France and Belgium, became a veritable ball of fire as the propylene vapor cloud ignited. Within seconds, 139 campers were incinerated while 152 others received massive burns. The final death toll is not yet known as burn victims continued to die.

What caused the tanker to explode may never be known. The driver was cremated in the fire and explosion, and eyewitness reports vary.

Burning fire reported

A motorcyclist stated he saw flames coming from a tire. Suddenly, the tanker veered into a stone wall separating the road from the campsite and then—the explosion and fire.

A report by Spanish investigators told of a hairline crack, 3 inches long, in a welded seam in a section of the remains of the tanker shell. It was theorized that the tanker exploded on the road and did not crash into the stone wall. The Haming tire could well have been the ignition source for fumes escaping from the hairline crack.

A survivor of the disaster said there was an explosion involving the tanker and then a large cloud, like a white umbrella, drifted over the camp. Gas droplets and ice particles from the suddenly frozen moisture in the air built a massive dome-shaped cloud ready to be ignited into a fire ball.

Tank explodes

The survivor said the ensuing ball of fire ignited the gas remaining in the tanker, and the cab and tank were blown to pieces. Some sections landed as far as 150 yards from the point of detonation.

Within the campsite, more than 100 autos burst into flame and propane tanks in the campers set off another series of explosions.

Propylene, a petroleum gas, is transported liquefied under a pressure of 250 to 300 psi.

The fatal tanker was on a two-lane road, straight and free of hazards, that runs north and south alongside the campsite between Tarragona and Valencia. After the driver of the tanker picked up a load of propylene at the Empetrol refinery in Tarragona, he started on a 450-mile trip to Puertollana, a small Spanish industrial center. By the time the tanker reached San Carlos de la Rapita, it had traveled 60 miles and passed through commercial areas in Tarragona and San Carlos.

Tankers were a common sight along this coastal stretch since they could avoid paying tolls on a superhighway a little more than a mile west of the coastal road.

Enforcement too late

This tanker should not have been permitted in densely populated areas. Two days after the disaster, San Carlos de la Rapita police were issuing summonses to tanker drivers who were transporting hazardous materials on the same road—enforcement that was a little too late.

When the final death toll is recorded for this tragedy, it may well be the second worse burn disaster in peacetime. The Tenerife, Canary Islands, jumbo jets collision last year killed 575 persons. Those who survived the crash were massively burned and most of them died.


Rear section of propylene tanker rests against restaurant where it landed after blast that carried it 175 yards from where it was on highway adjacent to campsite.

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