Just before 7pm, on August 7, 1996, everything seemed normal at the Las Nieves campground in Biescas, a village in the Spanish Pyrenees. Campers were huddled in their tents and caravans waiting for the summer storm to subside. Yet, within ten minutes, all hell had broken loose. The ravine had turned into a raging torrent filled with rocks and uprooted trees, sweeping away tents, overturning vehicles, and washing whole families away. Tragedy struck, and in its wake was left a trail of death and destruction — to which the abandoned scenes in this article stand in silent testament.
Sometimes, disaster strikes when one least expects it. Not that anyone is ever truly prepared for mishap — much less catastrophe — but certain situations or places might give you cause to be wary — a dark alley in a dangerous part of town, for instance. When you’re on vacation, nothing could be further from your mind. Ultimately, all you’re expecting is a few days of relaxation.
Biescas is a picturesque town in the community of Aragon in northeast Spain, not far from the French border in the Aragonese Pyrenees. Zaragoza (or Saragossa), the capital of Aragon, is about a two-hour-drive away; Barcelona about four-and-a-half. The scenic landscape of Biescas is hardly one you’d immediately associate with tragedy.
Renowned for some of the highest and most spectacular peaks — and views — in Spain, the mountains of Aragon are a popular tourist destination. However, the scenes left by the devastating flood that struck Biescas are far from picturesque. This smashed and twisted chair may well have been placed in the sun or next to a gentle campfire, but now is nothing but a sad reminder of a lost owner.
The example of Las Nieves in Biescas seems to imply that one needs to check carefully where to pitch one’s tent — and yet who could have foreseen such a disastrous chain of events when they pulled up at the campground ready for some summer fun? Perhaps the graffiti shown above was painted by someone who knew one of victims of the disaster, or perhaps it is just the thoughtful tribute of a local painter.
The flood that ran amok through the Las Nieves campsite killed 87 people and injured a further 183. Those of the unfortunate people who did not drown were crushed by the masses of debris carried by the floodwaters.
As investigations revealed, unfortunately Las Nieves is located on an alluvial fan, a fan-shaped landscape found in humid and arid climates where fast-flowing streams are spread out and slowed by the lie of the land. They are usually found at the ends of canyons where the landscape opens out into broader, flatter territory.
The alluvial fan in which Biascas is located ultimately flows into the Galician River. On the fateful night of August 7, as suggested, a bad storm brought on torrential rains, with almost 100 millimeters (4 in) recorded in 10 minutes.
The alluvial fan acted like a funnel, transporting rainwater through a ravine that quickly swelled into a violent stream. Bound unstoppably for the Galician River, it turned into a surging torrent that washed away all that lay before it.
The flood, the flow of which was estimated at a terrifying 500 cubic metres of water per second, tore up and swept away anything in its path. After the disaster, it was calculated that some 13,000 tons of rocks and wood had been caught up in and shifted by the flood.
The campsite location was known as an area of “very powerful torrential dynamics,” and in view of this the representatives of the Government of Aragon had previously issued a report in opposition to setting up a campground on the site.
Nevertheless, a ruling by the High Court in late 2005 blamed the State and Government of Aragon for the tragedy and demanded that they pay almost 11.3 million Euros in compensation to the victims of the tragedy.
More than 15 years have now passed since the fateful day, and one can only hope that a lesson was learned from this tragedy — namely, never to doubt the forces of nature, which can turn a quiet, scenic spot into a landscape of loss and nightmares.