8 January 1979: The Whiddy Island Disaster. Some 50 men were killed at Wide Island, Bantry Bay, when the oil tanker SS Betelgeuse was blown asunder during fuelling operations on this day. They were killed when the 11-year-old oil tanker owned by the French multinational Total exploded while offloading its cargo at the offshore jetty at the Whiddy Island oil terminal in the early hours of the morning.
“Around 1:00 am (evidence on the precise time conflicts) on Monday, 8 January, a rumbling or cracking noise was heard from the vessel, followed shortly by a huge explosion within its hull. The force of the explosion was seen to blow men from the jetty into the sea. Local residents reported seeing Betelgeuse engulfed in a ball of fire a few moments later. A series of further explosions followed, breaking the vessel in half. Much of the oil cargo still on board ignited and this generated temperatures estimated to exceed 1,000 °C. The concrete unloading jetty crumbled and firefighters, arriving on the scene from several neighbouring towns, were unable to get near the vessel. The firefighters concentrated their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to the tanks of the storage farm and on containing the oil spillage. Local families living on the island fled for their lives.”
‘A series of explosions broke the back of the 120,000 tonnes tanker and quickly spread to the jetty as the sea was engulfed in flames which lit up the night sky and were visible as far away as Dunmanway.
There were fears at one point that the entire terminal, owned at the time by Gulf Oil, would also be caught up in the conflagration but the fire was confined to the tanker and the jetty and the tanks emerged intact. All 42 French crew of the Betelgeuse perished in the tragedy, as did seven local men who were on the jetty at the time, Charlie Brennan, Tim Kingston, Denis O'Leary, Neilly O'Shea, Jimmy O'Sullivan, Liam Shanahan and David Warner.’
Irish Times 8 January 2009
The Irish government appointed a tribunal to investigate the incident, presided over by Justice Declan Costello. This tribunal took a year to hear evidence and prepare a 480-page report. The report indicated three main factors had contributed to the incident:
1. The poor condition of the Betelgeuse for which its operator, Total S.A., was to blame.
2. Incorrect unloading sequences and ballasting which resulted in the buoyancy of the hull becoming uneven and the hull therefore strained.
3. Inadequate and poorly maintained fire-fighting and rescue systems both on the vessel and on the jetty.