Still one of our worst maritime tragedies

Aerial view of the Whiddy Island oil tanker Betelgeuse disaster near Bantry, Co Cork, in which 50 people died.

The Whiddy Island oil terminal disaster almost 36 years ago still ranks as one of Ireland’s worst marine tragedies.

The Total SA-owned oil tanker Betelgeuse, exploded in Bantry Bay in the early hours of Monday, January 9, 1979, as it off-loaded an oil cargo, engulfing the ship and the terminal in a massive fireball.

The huge explosion and intense inferno claimed the lives of 50 people — 42 French nationals, seven Irish men, including Michael Kingston’s father Tim, and a British man. Only 27 bodies were recovered.

A Dutch diver died later during the salvage operation.

A series of further explosions erupted later, breaking the vessel in half, igniting most of the oil cargo still on board. It is estimated the fire reached a temperature over 1,000 celsius.

Firefighters couldn’t get near the vessel and battled to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby storage tanks as families living on Whiddy fled for their lives.

About 12 hours after the initial explosion, the Betelgeuse finally sank, but clouds of toxic and inflammable gas prevented rescue workers from getting to the ship for another two weeks.

It was only then the grim task of recovering bodies could begin.

The Government appointed a tribunal, presided over by Justice Declan Costello, to investigate the incident.

He spent a year hearing evidence before producing a 480-page report citing three key contributory factors, including the poor condition of the 11-year-old Betelgeuse, incorrect unloading sequences and ballasting combined with lack of crew training, and inadequate and poorly maintained fire fighting and rescue systems both on the vessel and on the jetty.

Local fishing grounds were badly contaminated and a clean-up was not complete until 1983.

The costs of salvage, clean-up and compensation are believed to have totalled around $120m.

There is a memorial to the victims of the disaster in St Finbarr’s Church graveyard overlooking Bantry Harbour.


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