7 August 1996: Flash flood kills 87 at Las Nieves campsite

Rescuers sift through the debris in search of victims of the flood.
Rescuers sift through the debris in search of victims of the flood. / SUR
  • Cars, caravans, tents and holidaymakers were swept away by a fast-moving avalanche of water, rock and mud during the freak storm

On Wednesday 7 August 1996, 87 holidaymakers were killed and nearly 200 injured when a torrent of mud and rock engulfed a crowded family campsite near the town of Biescas in northern Spain. Remnants of the Las Nieves campsite were strewn for miles as torrential rains caused an avalanche that swept away people, tents, caravans and cars. Some of the bodies of the victims were discovered ten miles downstream.

The campsite was full when the flash flood struck and hundreds of people had to be evacuated from the area to a sports stadium in Biescas. Authorities said there were around 700 Spanish holidaymakers, along with several French, British and Dutch families, staying at the site, 15 miles from the French border.

The ferocity of the torrent that engulfed the riverside campsite was so fierce that rescuers had extreme difficulty recovering the bodies from the mudslide. Police were not able to identify some victims because many of the campers were not carrying identification. A computer disk drive that contained information on the campsite's guests proved to be useless as it had been damaged by flood waters.

Some 500 rescue workers, including firefighters backed by helicopter teams, worked throughout the night and following days to recover the victims. Many of the bodies, six of whom were children, were found without clothes, which emergency services said had probably been torn off by the force of the water.

The bodies were taken to a makeshift morgue at the cultural centre of the nearby town of Jaca.

King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofía flew to the disaster area to comfort relatives of victims.

Prime Minister José María Aznar interrupted his holiday to inspect the carnage. He told reporters that it was a "dreadful sight".

Survivors described how the campsite, about the size of two football fields, was suddenly deluged with water, mud and rocks. One survivor said, "It was a matter of seconds, not even minutes. The main street in the campsite was a river of mud." Another described how he had to give up helping other people swept away by the flood to save his own life. "There comes a moment when it's you or nobody," he is reported to have said from his hospital bed.