A TERRIFYING rumbling shattering a still winter’s night, was the prelude to Ireland’s worst maritime disaster, a quarter of a century ago.
The subsequent explosion aboard the ill-fated supertanker Betelgeuse discharged a massive fireball which turned the West Cork night sky orange and spewed its flames over Bantry Bay.
As temperatures soared to almost 1,000 degrees, 50 people, including a crewman’s wife, perished. Crewmen aboard the badly-rusting and fractured tanker, along with workers at the Whiddy Island oil terminal were blown by the force of the explosion into the burning sea.
For the 40 islanders living on Whiddy, just a mile off the town off Bantry, hell’s fires had erupted on their doorstep. In the follow-up salvage operation, a further life was claimed when a Dutch diver died.
A sworn public inquiry was conducted in the aftermath of the tragedy along with a tribunal under a High Court judge. Mr Justice Declan Costello’s 488-page report later placed esponsibility for the disaster at the feet of the tanker’s owners, the Total Oil company.
However, one of the controversies still existing is whether there was a delay in the alarm being raised.
Today’s 25th anniversary will be commemorated with a special Mass in St Finbarr’s Church in Bantry. It is expected to be a low-key event compared to a commemorative service five years ago when French, Irish and Dutch relatives of those who perished met for the first time.
Although etched forever in the memory of West Cork people, it emerged that some of the younger family members of the French victims had been kept in the dark for many years about the tragedy. Most were not aware of the existence of a memorial to the Whiddy Island horror, a mast-shaped sculpture erected in Bantry cemetery. Beneath the imposing hillside memorial, which overlooks the inner harbour, two unidentified bodies of the tanker’s crewmen have been entombed.
Meriadeg Allegre, now aged 25, was 10 months old when his father died. He said: "I don’t remember the death of my father but it’s important for me to come here because I now know where he died." A signals officer aboard the tanker, Loic Allegre’s body was never recovered. "The memorial is like a grave to us," said his son, "we have no grave at home where we can pray to him."
Time, however, has not eased the pain of the disaster which occurred at 12.55am on January 8, 1979.
The oil tanker, sailing under the French flag, had berthed on a Saturday evening at the oil terminal’s offshore jetty and commenced its planned day-and-a-half long discharge at 11.30pm. The tanker, en route from the Arabian gulf to Portugal, had been diverted to the deepwater Bantry Bay after a sunken cargo ship had blocked access into the Port of Leixoes near Lisbon.
During the Sunday, many of the tanker crew were ashore for several hours as local service boats operated between the town and the terminal. Midnight approached and the discharged continued as normal.
But, within an hour, thunderous noises were heard ashore followed shortly by the explosion. The first blast snapped he massive 120,000-tonne tanker almost in half and turned the sea into an inferno.
Despite the intense heat and the risk of further explosions, the emergency services rushed to the island where Gulf Oil managed a huge tank storage farm. Medical teams from Bantry hospital were joined by the local fire brigade along with firefighters from Skibbereen and Dunmanway. Locals also formed volunteer rescue teams as a flotilla of boats headed for the scene.
On the island, itself, seven families experiencing their worst nightmare, abandoned Whiddy.
One of the terminal workers recalled the moments before the supertanker burst into flames. "It seemed as though pushed up from below. Then the flames came out at the bottom from underneath. There was a terrific explosion."
People at the mainland pier on Bantry later told of a "huge ball of oil igniting in the air directly over the ship".
In the immediate aftermath, a full-scale disaster alert was declared.
As the jetty linked to the tanker began to crumble, fears mounted that flames would spread to the 13 gigantic oil storage tanks on the island. By daybreak, the danger had abated but throughout the night, terminal staff and fire brigade personnel continuously sprayed the huge tanks to reduce the risk of further explosions.
For almost two decades afterwards, he Whiddy terminal was mothballed although it continued to hold the strategic national oil reserves.
Findings from the six-month Tribunal placed responsibility on the tanker’s owners, Total Oil, and also apportioned blame to Gulf Oil, which managed the terminal, because of its failure to ensure the safety of personnel on the offshore jetty and the crews of tankers berthed at Whiddy.
The tribunal heard a fire emergency plan, drawn up in 1970, had not been altered or improved in the decade leading up to the disaster and was not sufficient to deal with the Betelgeuse tragedy.
In what was described as a chapter of accidents, firemen had to break office windows to gain access to three Land Rovers at the terminal, two of which failed to started. The island’s fire engine also failed to start, while the local fire service had to wait, at the main pier in Bantry, to get a boat to the island.
Most significantly, however, the Betelgeuse was in appalling condition. An inspection of the tanker, nine months before the explosion, revealed 37 cracks in its crude cargo tanks. A major oil leak, it emerged, had been reported to the ship’s owners a week before the disaster.
Ballast tanks were so badly corroded, they could have been a possible cause of the explosion. The ship also lacked an inert gas safety system and had no effective disposal method for the treatment of dangerous vapours during ballasting operations. The ballasting procedures were incorrect for conditions in the bay at the time of the disaster.
Photographs taken of the tanker, before its fracture, showed stress lines on its structure.
The tribunal ruled the cause of the disaster was the buckling of the ship’s structure at or about deck level which was followed by explosions in the permanent ballast tanks and the breaking of the ship’s back. Contributory factors were the seriously weakened hull and excessive stress caused by incorrect ballasting on the night of the offloading. The tribunal also found there was a fundamental conflict of evidence between Gulf employees and locals living within sight of the terminal, with the main discrepancy focusing on the exact time of the fire.