DURING the late 1960s, the construction of the Gulf Oil terminal and oil tank farm on Whiddy Island provided a huge employment boost to the Bantry area in particular with the superior wages being offered providing a mini economic boom for West Cork. Bantry Bay had the deep-water capacity to cater for the massive super-tankers that brought crude oil from the Middle East to Western Europe for subsequent trans-shipment in smaller vessels to oil refineries across Europe.
Whiddy’s importance became even greater for a while in the early 1970s during the first major oil crisis, but this was diminished significantly by the re-opening of the Suez Canal, which meant oil could be transported again a lesser distance in smaller vessels from Kuwait directly to refineries in Europe. Gulf Oil began to lose interest in the West Cork facility after that.
Early in the morning of January 8th, 1979, the Bantry Bay area was rocked by a massive explosion that ripped apart the tanker, Betelgeuse, owned by French company Total SA, killing 50 people – including 42 French, seven Irish and one British national. Controversy followed over the sequence of events that led to the disaster and their timing, so a tribunal was set up to investigate the incident, presided over by Justice Declan Costello.
It concluded that the Betelgeuse was defective and there were incorrect unloading sequences and ballasting, but its owner, Total, drew attention to the unexplained absence from his post of the Gulf employee whose duty it was to supervise the unloading from the on-shore control room and that his absence may have contributed to a lack of urgency in responding to events. Gulf Oil rejected the Tribunal’s findings and exactly what happened that fateful night 40 years ago has never been established beyond doubt.
As we remember those who lost their lives on Whiddy Island, let us hope that West Cork will never again see a disaster of that magnitude.