RTÉ documentary to recall horrific Bantry Bay inferno

April 8th, 2017 11:50 AM

By Southern Star Team

The remains of the former oil terminal jetty in Whiddy photographed in 2015 by local photographer Nicholas O'Donnell.

Share this article

The horror of the Whiddy Island disaster will be highlighted in the new RTÉ series of ‘Scannal’, writes Emma Connolly

Whiddy Island’s horrific oil disaster is to be recalled in a TV series on RTÉ this season.

The Scannal TV series will also question whether some or all of the 50 who perished, in what was the country’s worst maritime accident, could have been saved.

The documentary will put the spotlight on what is often regarded as a ‘forgotten story’ and one that’s unknown to a whole generation of Irish people, despite the fact that its consequences remain live for so many, 38 years on.

‘It will show the long term consequences for the families of the victims and how some of those are still suffering very badly,’ said Frank Hand, who made the programme, along with Beara man Padraig O’Driscoll, as part of the popular Scannal series.

Among those who contributed is Michael Kingston from Goleen, whose father Tim was one of seven local men who perished in the fire on January 8th, 1979.

Michael, an award-winning London-based maritime lawyer, is recognised globally for his pioneering legal work improving regulatory standards in the global shipping industry. His career choice is no coincidence – he clearly remembers his father’s death which took place on his fourth birthday.

‘I remember playing with a toy helicopter in the back garden that day with my dad and uncle. Then the next day my mother sat myself and my six-year-old sister Mary down and broke the news to us that our father was gone to heaven – and I remember all the turmoil and trauma that followed.’

He calls the tragedy the ‘Hillsborough of Ireland’ and feels there is clear legal grounds for a review of the government-appointed tribunal that took place after the incident where he feels the truth was suppressed into what happened that night.

He wants justice for the victims and their families – something which he feels strongly has not been served, and says the Irish authorities cannot brush the incident under the carpet of history.

‘My father’s body was not found for over eight months, until August 1979. He did not die from burning, but drowning. He has a legal right to a proper coroner’s investigation into the surrounding circumstances of his death under the Right to Life provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights, in exactly the same manner as the Hillsborough victims.’ Michael feels that ‘given the false testimony and perjury that the Whiddy Island Tribunal concluded took place, that the revised coroner’s report would conclude unlawful death.’

‘My father has been denied that right, as have all the other victims, and if the Government do not carry out the review for the benefit of all in the future, in the manner I suggest, then those rights will need to be asserted in our courts. Are our Government really going to ignore this and put us through that?’ he asked. 

Michael, who visits Goleen often, said his mother Mary, who will be 71 in May, still carries an awful sadness. ‘It eats away at her; her beloved husband was left to die.  Had these men followed their own natural instinct and swam to safety, they would have been saved. Instead, they waited for a system that failed them. My mother attended the tribunal every day and nothing came out of it.’

Michael recently attended the commemoration ceremony at Plérin in Brittany with his mother Mary, where he addressed the crowd.

‘We have to learn that safety is number one on the agenda of any operation in the Irish jurisdiction. We have a duty to protect those involved in any operation and the rescue services, so that they are not necessarily called out and their lives put at risk.’

The programme, while not drawing any fresh conclusions, outlines the background to the operation at Whiddy, the explosion and the tribunal that followed. 

The documentary will be shown as part of this season’s Scannal series on RTÉ One at 7pm on Thursday, April 13th.


Only 27 of the 50 bodies were recovered

The oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in Bantry Bay at 1am Monday, January 9, 1979, as it off-loaded an oil cargo. The ship and terminal were engulfed in a massive inferno. 

The tanker was owned by Total SA, and the oil terminal was owned and operated by Gulf Oil.

The explosion and fire claimed the lives of 50 people — 42 French nationals, seven Irish men and a British man. Only 27 bodies were recovered.

Further fires later broke out and the vessel broke in half, igniting most of the oil cargo still on board. 

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

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

The Government appointed a tribunal, presided over by Justice Declan Costello, to investigate. He spent a year hearing evidence and produce a 480-page report citing three key contributory factors. These included: 

– the poor condition of the 11-year-old Betelgeuse;

– incorrect unloading sequences and ballasting, combined with lack of crew training;

– inadequate and poorly maintained fire fighting and rescue systems both on the vessel and on the jetty.

The Costello tribunal’s findings were never accepted by Total.

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

The costs of salvage, clean-up and compensation are believed to have come to around m (€87m).

Martime lawyer Michael Kingston, whose father Tim perished in the fire, said it was an incident that should never have happened and says there are clear legal grounds for a review into the tragedy. 

He has been working tirelessly for many years to make this a reality.

Share this article

Related content


to our mailing list for the latest news and sport:

Thank You!

You have successfully been subscribed to SouthernStar newsletter!

Form submitting... Thank you for waiting.