The 8th January 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of the worst industrial accident to occur in the Republic of Ireland during peacetime when the French oil tanker, MV Betelgeuse, exploded at Gulf Oil’s Whiddy Island Oil Terminal in Bantry Bay. Fifty lives were lost in the explosion, forty two French, seven Irish and one Englishman. A Dutch diver died later during the salvage operation.
The anniversary was marked in the nearby town of Bantry by the families and friends of those who died as they gathered to remember their loved ones and to pay respect to the rescue services. It was attended by approximately 2,000 people with representation from all over Ireland and the maritime world. Additionally, 47 wreaths were sent in memory of those who died and as an acknowledgement of the importance of implementing international maritime regulation, to protect life and so as our rescue services do not have to be called out unnecessarily. In 1979, the International Maritime Organisation’s SOLAS 1974 had still not been implemented by Ireland and other nations and it provided for simple inert gas systems on tankers which would have prevented the disaster.
This was a frightening disaster, and there were real fears for the safety of the town of Bantry itself as large oil holding tanks were located near the tanker explosion and had they exploded the results could have been even more catastrophic.
The subsequent Costello Tribunal, held in Bantry, concluded that the Betelgeuse was defective, and that Gulf Oil had deliberately downgraded safety systems. Some evidence provided to the Tribunal by Gulf Oil management and personnel about the timing of events on that night was not accepted as true by Justice Costello in his report, concluding that Gulf Oil embarked on a collusion in an attempt to absolve themselves from liability for their inadequate safety systems.
The escape opportunities for the workers and seafarers from the ship docking jetty back to Whiddy Island itself were not available and certainly resulted in the high death toll. Gulf Oil had removed the bridge between the jetty and Whiddy Island some years earlier to allow two tankers to berth simultaneously, fire-fighting equipment was ill-maintained and downgraded from automatic to manual, and the safety boats were removed from the vicinity of the jetty and moored at the other side of the Island where they were of little practical use in an emergency. There was no escape from the jetty to the Island on that awful night, where they waited for at least 20 minutes to be saved before the tanker exploded.
For the families in France, Ireland, the UK and Holland, this disaster was a horrific personal tragedy. Their loved ones had perished in an appalling event which many argue could and should have been foreseen and prevented. The arguments and unanswered questions continue but the sadness, grief, anger at the sense of injustice, of many of those bereaved remains raw and real.
International Lawyer, Michael Kingston, from Goleen in West Cork who lost his Dad Tim in the explosion, has campaigned for many years on behalf of the families to ensure that the recommendations of the Whiddy Island Tribunal report are recognised in legislation and appropriate penalties are in place to ensure that nothing like this can occur again in Ireland.
He is deeply unhappy at the response and lack of respect of successive Irish Governments to date, and the fact that Ireland continues to fail to implement International Maritime Organisation conventions leaving Ireland’s workers and rescue services at unnecessary risk.
At the 40th Anniversary Michael asked the Government to rectify these failings and he indicated that if they did not the families would bring a High Court action on the basis of the Right to Life under Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which he indicates to us is imminent.
He indicates that the victims Death Certificates, by analogy with the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in the United Kingdom in 1989, are incorrect and must be changed to ‘unlawful death’ as the surrounding circumstances of death (the findings of Mr Justice Costello in relation to Gulf Oil’s collusion and Gulf’s breach of Irish safety legislation at the time) have not been taken into account by the Coroner, as was the case initially with the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. The Hillsborough Stadium Safety Officer has recently been convicted since Michael raised these issues in January.
Michael is Vice-President of the French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse.
Michael Kingston will speak at the Firkin Crane Theatre on Friday 2nd August at 7.30 pm.
He will be accompanied by Tom MacSweeney who was the first RTE broadcaster on the scene in Bantry on 08th January 1979. Tom has had a lifelong interest in maritime affairs and he has been critical of the State’s attitudes to the maritime sector.
In addition, a Statement will be made on behalf of Madame Ginette Ravaleu, President of the French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse.
The script of Michael Kingston’s Speech on 08th January 2019 at St Finbarr’s Church, Bantry, can be seen at
For further info see recent article in Inshore Ireland Summer 2019: https://inshore-ireland.com/whiddy-island-disaster-40-years-on/