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Destruction of sanctuary brings back memories of Prestige oil disaster

Galician town of Muxía mourns damage to landmark from Christmas blaze

Galician premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo (second from right) visits the sanctuary.
Galician premier Alberto Núñez Feijóo (second from right) visits the sanctuary. EFE

The destruction by fire of the A Virxe de Barca monastery in Muxía, Galicia, after a nearby electrical transformer was struck by lightning on Christmas Day brings to mind another tragic event that took place on these shores 11 years ago around this time of year, when local people woke up to a strange smell. That was the Prestige oil tanker spill. This year it was the smell of smoke. “Now we are once again seeing the creation of crisis committees by the local authorities, while local people are volunteering in their thousands, many of whom will have been involved in clearing up the oil spill of 2002,” says the mayor of the coastal town, Félix Porto.

“Everybody has been deeply affected by the fire, whether they are a believer or not. This place was a museum of our history,” says Ramón Vilela, a sailor who lives close to the now ruined monastery, and whose house is the starting and finishing point for the jogging route used by the two women who raised the alarm early on the morning of December 25. Vilela was among the first to arrive on the scene of the blaze, immediately realizing that there was nothing to be done to save 300-year-old building. “The wind was driving the water away from the flames, and the firefighters’ equipment couldn’t get through the narrow streets.”

Toñico Haz Amigo, a 37-year-old fisherman, says that he felt the same impotence on seeing the flames as he did when he first came across the vast oil spill that hit local beaches in 2002. “You could see people crying, and they weren’t just from Muxía, but from all along the coast. A lady from Laxe was on the point of breaking down and had to be held back from trying to enter the burning building.”

“It was, and it remains, a symbol for all of us; it wasn’t just a religious place, although it was part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route: it was a symbol of the construction of Europe half a millennium ago,” says Natxo Castro, a member of a local religious association.

The worst aspect of the tragedy is that the 12th-century sanctuary, which was rebuilt in the 18th century, had just been fully renovated. Tiled floors that had been installed during the last century were removed, revealing the flagstones underneath. “It is such a shame that after such a careful restoration, they didn’t bother to install fire alarms or smoke detectors. As usual, nobody bothers to think about these things until something terrible happens,” says Vilela ruefully.

Specialists from the Civil Guard are still trying to identify exactly where the lightning bolt fell that started the fire. The church, the port installations, and the lighthouse in Muxía are all connected. The lightning rod nearest to the church does not seem to have been hit.

"Rebuilding, rehabilitation and replacement"

The reconstruction and renovation of A Virxe de Barca will be carried out, “whatever it costs,” and tenders will be put out “immediately,” said the head of the regional government of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, on December 26 after visiting the site. The Popular Party politician was accompanied by local and regional dignitaries of all political stripes, and said that no expense will be spared in rebuilding the sanctuary, and that “all Galicians are totally committed to the rebuilding, rehabilitation, and replacement of this emblematic site.”

Feijóo did not provide any figures on what the reconstruction might cost. The head of the Socialist Party’s Galician branch, José Ramón Gómez Besteiro, who has also visited the site, suggested that local governments direct 1.5 percent of public works spending to restoring the monastery. The Socialist mayor of Muxía, Félix Porto, said that his understanding was that the regional government had committed itself to funding the initial stages of the restoration work: “What we might call the civil works required to consolidate and rehabilitate the monument. The next phase is as important, or even more important, which is the plan to recover the artistic and cultural heritage that was inside the building.”

This is not the first time that this corner of Muxía has required repairs. In 1978, lightning hit the Pedra de Abalar, a landmark rock next to the sanctuary. It has been repaired several times, but as the locals say: “It was never the same.”