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August 10, 1993: Three-ship crash causes oil spill in Tampa Bay

On this day: Tampa Bay oil spill
On this day: Tampa Bay oil spill 01:21

"There is no obvious explanation about how this happened," CBS News correspondent Reed Galin reported on August 10, 1993.

He was right -- the sky was clear and the sea was calm. Still, a freighter collided with two barges, dumping nearly 330,000 gallons of fuel oil at the mouth of Tampa Bay.

Another 32,000 gallons of jet fuel, diesel fuel, and gasoline also spilled in the bay. One of the barges caught fire upon impact and burned for eighteen hours straight before it could be put out.

A three-vessel collision set one of the barges on fire and caused more than 300,000 gallons of oil to spill. NOAA

Within hours of the collision, a slick five miles long developed.

"This is an estuary area of great importance to the Florida coast," Reed said. "Environmentalists say that the marshlands, the beaches, the sea life surrounding the spill area are a national treasure."

The spill happened at a time of year when birds and sea turtles were nesting. It was a sensitive season in a sensitive place -- environmentally and economically.

"Small fish, small shrimp are just coming in now for the season coming on. And that tide brings out oil," one fisherman told CBS News.

It was one of the first major tasks for NOAA's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP), which focuses on a quick response for spills and the timely collection of data.

Unidentified workers wearing protective suits pick up oil covered sand on Madeira Beach, Florida on August 16, 1993. Some 500 workers lined the beach to pick up oil after three vessels collided in a Tampa Bay shipping channel. AP

Thanks to the tides and winds on that day, the oil was initially pushed 15-30 miles out to sea -- giving clean up teams on land the chance to prepare for the oil's arrival on beaches, and sparing much of the wildlife near shore.

When a storm system with strong winds pushed the oil ashore four days later, response crews were ready and waiting to clean up the mess with shovels and loaders.

Within three weeks, and about $35 million later, crews had cleaned up most of the 13-mile stretch of beach fouled by the oil.

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