The Whiddy Island oil terminal disaster 40 years ago still ranks as one of Ireland’s worst marine tragedies, writes PAULA REDMOND

In the late 1960s, the Gulf Oil Company began construction of a large oil terminal with landing installations at Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork. The facility was capable of accommodating super-tankers bringing oil from the Middle East and was opened in May 1969.

The terminal provided a significant economic boost to the region at the time. The same year Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers wrote their sea shanty ‘Bringin’ Home the Oil’ which features a sailor working on a Gulf Oil tanker bringing oil to Bantry Bay. The song was used for a television commercial for Gulf Oil in the US during the airing of the moon landings.

Disaster struck in the early hours of January 8th, 1979, when a large oil tanker named M.V. Betelgeuse exploded, engulfing the oil terminal jetty in flames. The disaster killed fifty people including forty-two French nationals, seven Irish men and one British national. A Dutch diver later died in the salvage operation.

Betelgeuse had left the Persian Gulf in November 1978, bound for Leixoes, Portugal. She was carrying approximately 115,000 metric tonnes of Arabian crude oil. It had been planned to first call at Sines, south of Lisbon, to lighten the ship, but the weather was so bad the vessel could not enter the harbour.

She also could not dock at Leixoes to discharge some cargo as a ship had sank at the entrance to the port blocking passage. The captain was then instructed to head for Whiddy Island oil terminal.

After stopping at Vigo to change some crew she set sail for Ireland on December 30th.
The ship encountered bad weather in the Bay of Biscay. Then after a short delay involving an oil leak, which almost resulted in her being diverted to Brest in France, the vessel arrived in Bantry Bay on January 4th, 1979. She completed berthing at the offshore jetty – situated approximately 1,300 feet from Whiddy Island by 8pm on January 6th.

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