In Bantry tomorrow, families from Ireland and France will gather to remember the Whiddy Island disaster of 40 years ago — many with questions still unanswered decades later, says Noel Baker
Night turned to day, there was fire in the sky - a world turned upside down. So unreal was the scene in the early hours of January 8, 1979, that all kinds of matter, including the nearest thing to steel fluff you can find, fell down from the heavens around Bantry Bay. One man refers to the nocturnal scene of a crowd gazing at the orange glow as being “like market day”. For one boy fleeing Whiddy Island “it was like Pompeii.” And for four-year-old Michael Kingston, it was the day after his fourth birthday.
When he awoke at 6am that Monday morning, he was entering into a different world. His mother, Mary, took him and his older sister onto her knee and told them “Daddy had gone to heaven.” Tim Kingston was just 31 when he, along with 49 others, were killed after a fire consumed the oil tanker Betelgeuse in a disaster which scarred the sea, threw fire and smoke into the sky, and altered forever the lives of the families of those taken that night.
“I don’t remember any of my other birthdays, but I remember my fourth birthday,” Michael says. The Goleen man is a celebrated lawyer of international standing. Mainly London-based, he was awarded the 2014-2015 Lloyd’s List Global Maritime Lawyer of the Year for his contribution to safety of life at sea, and in July 2015 received the US Coastguard Challenge Coin for his efforts to promote maritime safety by raising awareness about the IMO Polar Code. And it all derives from this moment, when he had barely turned four and his father was taken away.
“I remember the excitement of it being my birthday and my aunt, who had a pub in Goleen, had brought a Tayto box down with coke and crisps and chocolate,” he says of the day before everything changed. “My father had a toy helicopter, and I remember him and my uncle in the back garden and getting it stuck in a tree.
He doesn’t remember saying the exact words, but he was told that, after his mother had broken the news to him, he began letting go of some of the balloons that were still festooned around the house from the day before, informing her: ‘Mummy, I’m sending these balloons up to make Daddy happy in heaven.’”
Just reading the opening paragraph of the Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the Whiddy Island Disaster, delivered in May 1980, it seems there were unsettling auguries.
“The MV ‘Betelgeuse’ left Ras Tanura in the Persian Gulf on the 24th November, 1978, bound for Leixoes, in Portugal,” it begins, referring to the large tanker and its cargo of 75,000 metric tonnes of Arabian Heavy crude and 40,000 metric tonnes of Arabian Light crude. “Originally the intention was to call first at Sines, which is south of Lisbon, to lighten ship but the weather was so bad that she could not enter the harbour. Her plans were further frustrated at Leixoes; a ship sank across the entrance to the harbour and she was prevented from calling there and discharging her cargo. She was then instructed to sail to Whiddy Island, which is situated in Bantry Bay, County Cork, and where an oil terminal is operated by Gulf Oil Terminals (Ireland) Ltd. She stopped in Vigo to change some of her crew, and sailed for Bantry on the 30th December. She encountered heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay and after reporting a leakage of oil was instructed to head towards Brest and reduce speed. However, the origin of the leak was discovered and stopped, and the vessel proceeded on passage to Bantry, arriving in the Bay on the 4th January, 1979. She completed berthing at the offshore jetty (which is situated about 1,300 feet (396 metres) off Whiddy Island) at 20.00 hours on Saturday, 6th January.”
It found that the “First Phase” of the disaster began very shortly after 00.30am on January 8, with “a small and localised” fire. It rapidly spread, and by 00.40am the second phase began, with a series of smaller explosions beginning at 00.50am and concluding with a massive explosion around 01.06am.
“The dispatcher had left the Control Room and did not become aware of the fire until just before 00.45 hours,” it said. “It is highly probable that he was then immediately in radio contact with Mr. [Tim] Kingston (the Pollution Control Officer) who was on the jetty and Captain [David] Warner (the Pilot) who was on the ship. He tried to contact Mr Ash (Gulf Oil Corporation’s general manager in Bantry town) using the emergency telephone to Bantry Exchange, and he succeeded in reaching Mr William Flynn, operations manager. He contacted the Donemark [a personnel launch owned by terminal operator Gulf] on Channel 14 probably at about 00.48 hours. His first message was: ‘Go to the jetty—we have a fire’. This message was overheard on the Snave, the line-boat then moored at Ascon Jetty. At 00.50 hours he contacted the duty tug, the Bantry Bay (moored out of sight of the jetty around Whiddy Point East) using Channel 16, and was overheard by Mr Wong, the second mate of the “Bilbao” anchored 8.5 miles (14 km) down Bantry Bay.
"He said ‘Come quick—we have a fire’. He telephoned Mr Downey at 00.50 hours in the office of the power-house and told him ‘The ship is on fire — do what you can to help’. About one and half minutes after his first call to the Donemark he made a second call to her saying ‘Go as fast as you can, Bruce, to Dolphin and take the lads off’. He made a second call to the Bantry Bay about 2.5 minutes after the first.
The dispatcher was John Connolly, who told the Tribunal he was in the control room. According to the Tribunal report: “Shortly after 00.50 Mr Connolly was still in touch on Channel 90 with Mr Kingston. At this time, Mr Kingston radioed to him to send out the Donemark and Mr Connolly replied: ‘she is on her way’. Shortly after this Mr Kingston radioed again: ‘John, you are on Channel 90’ and Mr Connolly replied ‘I know, turn on Channel 90 and Channel 14’. Some time later Mr Kingston called for the last time: ‘quick, John, quick’.”
Chapter 8 of the report deals with ‘Steps taken to suppress the truth’, and addresses how some evidence from some Gulf workers differed hugely with independent eye-witness accounts. According to the report: “Active steps were taken by some Gulf personnel to suppress the fact that the dispatcher was not in the Control Room when the disaster began.”
It also referred to inadequacies in Gulf’s pre-disaster safety preparations and fire-fighting capacity and rejects utterly claims made by Gulf that gardaí had lied at the tribunal. It was one of a number of elements which left a sour taste. A string of legal cases dragged on for years afterwards, including relating to charges against John Connolly and others of making false statements to the tribunal. They maintained their innocence and the case was dismissed — on what Michael Kingston terms “a technicality” — in 1984.
It also said that “the seriously weakened hull of the vessel was the result of deliberate decisions taken at different times”. Among the conclusions was that “the major share of the responsibility for the loss of the ship must lie on the management of Total Oil SA, the owners of the tanker” and “had the dispatcher in the Control Room observed the initiation of the disaster it is probable that the lives of both the jetty crew and those on board the ship would have been saved.”
There is also an interesting side note in the Tribunal Report: the Betelguese’s sister ship, the Cassiopee, had herself been in Whiddy on January 6 that year and had sailed on from there to her final destination — where she was scrapped.
Tim O’Leary hasn’t strayed from home and now runs the Bank House on Whiddy Island. He was living on the island, just a young boy of 12 then. His proximity to the disaster was already too close for comfort, but it could conceivably have been worse. As he recalls, his father, Jim, worked in the Gulf and had tied up the Betelgeuse that morning. Then, luckily, he promptly went on his holidays.
“The only person who is left [on the island from that time] is my mother and she said she is not talking about it any more. She has said enough,” Tim outlines.
His sister, Mary, raised the alarm with the words “There is something wrong with the Gulf.” The O’Learys couldn’t see the jetty from the house so their father, Jim, walked down to see what was going on —
then came the huge explosion.
“He came back and said ‘we are going and that’s that’.
“Going across on the punt, there was no big boat, we were lucky it was a calm night.
“It was like daylight going across the harbour, the light from the flames, the flames were unbelievable.”
They were being thrown 40 metres up into the sky.
“It was like four o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. Recalling material falling from the sky and raining down on top of the cattle sheds. “It was like Pompeii.”
As for the outcome of the inquiry report, he says: “Some of the fellas got a really bad name.”
“They were there when the music stopped. None of the gear worked.
“The whole thing was crazy from top to bottom.”
For all the terrifying, hell-like vision of fire and smoke, the biggest scare was yet to come. It was some weeks after the disaster and Tim’s parents had gone shopping in Bantry.
“I was doing my jobs, after feeding the cows and I turned on the news and heard a diver was killed as well.” It was a Dutchman, Jaap Pols, working on the salvage operation carried out by Dutch firm Smit Tak. He became the 51st victim of the disaster.
“It frightened the life out of me.”
Françoise Letellier was just 27 when the Whiddy disaster occurred and was only in the job as the Cork-based French Honorary Consul from the previous May.
On January 8, 1979, she first heard the news of the Whiddy explosion on the news and shortly afterwards got a call from the embassy telling her to go to Bantry.
“When I arrived I was told to go to the Westlodge Hotel, it was the headquarters for the whole thing,” she recalls. “There was a lot of phonecalls, I was dealing with the French interpreting and some of the families were already ringing. Some of them were bringing their children to school to France when they heard that a tanker had exploded in Ireland. They knew their husbands were on board.”
One task involved the doing the paperwork so the bodies could be repatriated to France. As Francoise recalls: “The worst part was when you had to go to the funeral homes and see the coffins and things like that, that I found really terrible, really difficult. Because there was 12 of them.”
Questions asked all those years ago are still being asked now. “Everyone knew that the Betelgeuse was probably not in very good shape but at the same time they [the families] could not understand why could they not be saved. That is the question to this day, why they were not saved.
Ginette Ravaleau, the chairperson of the French-Irish Association, broke her hip the day before Christmas and will not now be able to travel to Bantry. “Her husband [Marcel] was found very, very close to the shore,” Francoise says. “He was a good swimmer and he tried to reach the shore. He was found five metres from the shore.”
Of the families affected, 23 have never had a body returned to them. It would have been 24 but for the remarkable identification more than a decade ago of one of those killed. Francoise received a call from Cork University Hospital to tell her of the breakthrough. “We were all amazed that people were still working on that,” she says, remembering that in the hospital, “on a shelf, they had all the different bottles and the names of people on them. I always remember that. Some of them they had very, very little to identify them.
“It still is haunting them,” she says of the 23 families. “Some of these families will be there [in Bantry], I am travelling with them on the 7th, and their husbands and fathers have not been found yet.”
Francoise stood down as honorary consul five years ago and moved to Brittany. Her trip back to Bantry will be to accompany a group of 44 people, that will include wives, siblings, grandchildren, and two of the French divers who helped search for bodies in the immediate aftermath. “As the families say, I am the only link they have between Brittany and France.”
She has also paid visits to the special memorial to the Betelgeuse tragedy in the Seafarer’s Garden in the Brittany town of Plerin, but the Bantry trip, she says, will be particularly poignant.
“I will because I feel I am part of the group at some point, it will bring back a lot of memories, it was tough,” she says.
“They want answers, all the families. That’s why they keep going. Why did they die?”
French ambassador Mr Stéphane Crouzat is acutely aware of how the incident registered with people back in France.
Like so many, Ambassador Crouzat plays tribute to Michael Kingston as one of the “driving forces” behind not just the changes post-Whiddy that made the oil sector a safer place in which to work, but also in assisting the French-Irish Association of the Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse which has bonded in the decades that followed.
“He has managed to bring together the families — the Irish families of the seven local people who died and the 42 French families.
“It is difficult to say anything good came out [of the tragedy] but one positive was that safety of life was so important — it sped up ratification of the international maritime convention of 1974 [International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea - commonly known as SOLAS Conventions] which had not been ratified at that time. It was terribly sad that it was sped up due to such a terrible loss of life.”
He says of the disaster: “In many quarters it is in the collective psyche.”
Or, as Francoise puts it: “You can’t forget.”
Eileen O’Shea was aged just 22 back then and in training for a junior management role in the Westlodge Hotel. Now she is a senior tourism official but on the night of the Betelgeuse tragedy, she was working in the reception section of the hotel, on what seemed like any other Sunday night.
“We had a dance going on the very night this happened,” she recalls. “It was the era of Sunday night dancing, in the main function room. The whole building kind of rocked — we knew something terrible was after happening. Outside the door you could see the smoke.
“The fear at the time was the residents on Whiddy. Everything [at the dance] finished up completely and everybody was just stunned.”
As the scale of what had occurred became apparent, almost overnight the Westlodge was swamped with calls from at home and abroad and transformed into de facto information hub.
“We had a skeleton staff, working around the clock, it was like a headquarters at the time,” Elaine says. “The memory we have now was of an old-fashioned switchboard where you had to push in the chord.”
She describes the bewildered, febrile scene that night as “bedlam”, with people almost working 24 hours straight, then the following day people started arriving from early morning.
“The gloom was not only over the town but [there] for anyone working at the time.
“There was so many different aspects to it, trying to arrange with the French families — that was absolutely shocking, the oil people were looking for meeting rooms at the time. Everybody was trying to deal with it the same way, whether local or French, everyone was just devastated.”
In her current role, she sees how the Whiddy disaster has echoed down the years. “We still get people coming to Bantry to visit the monument in the cemetery,” she says. “We operate the tourist office in the town and we get French people who are relatives and who are not relatives who visit the monument.”
The now-retired JP Twomey was a sergeant at the time in the town and, like everyone else, never had an inkling that anything could go wrong down at ‘the Gulf’.
“I was sick in bed,” he says of that day 40 years ago. “I was at the doctor that morning, I had a dose of tonsillitis, and some time around 1am I heard what I thought was a noise up in the attic. I thought it was the storage tank, that the water might have been off and coming in, but I thought it was a bit too loud for that. Then there was a rap at the window, and my neighbour shouts ‘Whiddy is gone up’.
“I looked out the window and you could see the flames outside. I suppose some of the burnt steel was falling in the yard,” he says, referring to the light foil that dappled some areas in the immediate aftermath — “light stuff, like tissue paper. That fell maybe eight or nine miles out into the country [inland] — a sheet of plywood was found six miles out the road.
“I had to get out straight away and head to the station,” JP says. “The major disaster accident plan was put into operation, people came in from outside stations, ambulances, the fire brigade and during the course of the night, two helicopters, fairly large. The Royal Navy came in from Wales, and they were used afterwards to take some of the bodies up to Cork.”
JP recalls the small hours of that night as “fairly unreal” — “Maybe around 3 o’clock in the morning Bantry was like ... they came in from everywhere, it was like a market day.”
There might well have been an element of dazed curiosity, but before long a black pall of smoke — literal and metaphorical — was hovering over Bantry. “For years after there was a gloom over the town, it destroyed the town,” JP says.
The dark mood was not eased by the work of the tribunal and its report, with many taking issue with aspects of its findings. JP was among the gardaí who took statements, although not many, in his case. He says that while the inquiry may have been imperfect, it was the best reading of the situation at that time.
Now retired 19 years, he has seen the various anniversaries come and go, and the reluctance to talk about it at any great length continue among many of his contemporaries. “They don’t like to talk about it,” he says, adding: “it’s not a very pleasant thing to talk about.”
Vivian O’Callaghan, a former chairman of Cork County Council, was a local councillor at the time and owner of the Bantry Bay Hotel. His retelling is full of striking detail.
One personal element was the significant and “very close” working relationship with those involved in the tankers.
“Their office was closed at weekends and as a consequence we used to cash cheques when the crew came ashore,” he recalls. “We used to do that service at the Bantry Bay Hotel so they could go shopping. The upshot was at weekends we would have group of various nationalities, some of them would be staying, with Bantry the usual transit point for people, and they might be staying with us for a day or two.
“In this particular case they weren’t [staying] because the ship was going directly on back to France, they weren’t getting off. The reason I remember it so vividly was they were in to use the phone, to ring up the local exchange. These guys were all coming ashore because they had missed Christmas and missed New Year’s Day [at sea]. They were ringing home.
“Maybe 10 to 20 of them were in in the course of the morning and that night, they were all dead. I can remember them all now, some of them talking. We had the off-licence end of the bar and them using the phone, talking to the wives and them putting on the kids...”
When the unimaginable happened, life had been unfolding at its usual pace. Vivian was still up when the alarm was raised.
“We looked, and we said it couldn’t be a gorse fire. I went back and locked bar and went upstairs. My wife that time would set table for breakfast. I wasn’t long upstairs and there was a bang and the cups and saucers went down on the floor. That was the explosion that broke the ship in two. We knew then some major mishap was after happening.”
Unreality reigned. “People came in from all quarters, we threw the place open, all kinds of people were coming, my mother was up making sandwiches.” Still no-one was really sure what had taken place, or its awful scale. News emerged during the course of the night, and a local GP, who was also an active fisherman and a fine oarsman, confirmed the worst. He had gone out on one of the first boats and on his return said he knew no one could have survived — “people I was talking to six or seven hours before...”
Michael Kingston has represented the international Union of Marine Insurance at the International Maritime Organisation. He also carried out the legal reviews on Lloyd’s of London’s 2011 Drilling in Extreme Environments report following the Deep-Water Horizon Disaster; their report, Arctic Opening: Opportunity and Risk in the North Sea; and their 2013 Removal of Wreck report following the sinking of Costa Concordia.
It is starting to look like a lifetime’s work, and he attributes it to the memory of his father and the other victims of the Whiddy disaster.
“That was the situation I was in and the family were in but luckily we had a great aunt and uncle and grandfather and they rallied around us. My mum kept my father’s memory alive — we would pray going to school in the car in the morning and we would pray every night.”
There is still a sense of justice not having been done. He says he trusts the judiciary, but can’t accept why recommendations made in the Tribunal Report by Mr Justice Declan Costello, were not fully implemented. There is a sense that people were not fully held to account, and that the oil companies were not adequately sanctioned for what happened, that the Irish government did not do enough. “There was ample evidence for further action that didn’t happen,” he says.
Michael remembers how, eight months after the tragedy, his father’s body was found, given up by the sea after the Fastnet storm. Others found around the same time were Cornelius O’Shea and Denis O’Leary. He can never forget what happened to them.
His father and others were found to have died from asphyxia from drowning. They were fully clothed. They could have been taken away from the scene if everything had gone to plan, if everything had worked as it should have. But it didn’t.
It’s that memory which drives him to this day, not least in organising the commemorative events that will take place in Bantry tomorrow, 40 years on.
“I am concentrating on making sure the memory of those who died are honoured on Tuesday and the amount of people coming from all over the world, physically and through wreaths, we will feel incredibly proud of those whose lives were lost and will see they are honoured properly for once and for all.”
How might he feel when it’s all over? “I hope I will feel I have discharged my duty on their behalf,” he says.
No doubt he has already, no doubt those in Bantry and beyond and the ghosts of those that are gone agree. And they might just have one other thing to say: Happy Birthday, Michael.