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Recovery of the 'Betelgeuse' Tanker off Whiddy Island, Co Cork. RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta

'I can’t imagine a worse death, between drowning and burning:' 40 years after the Whiddy Island disaster

The Memorial Service for the 51 people who died will be held at St Finbarr’s Church at 11am today.

A MEMORIAL EVENT is being held in Bantry, Co Cork this morning to mark the 40th anniversary of the Whiddy Island disaster, also known as the Betelgeuse incident.

The Memorial Service will be held at St Finbarr’s Church at 11am today, and will be followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the Abbey Cemetery. 

The Mayor of County Cork and the French-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of the Betelgeuse organised the event to honour those who died.

Of the 51 victims of the disaster, there were 42 French nationals, seven Irish citizens, one British man, and a Dutch diver that died during rescue efforts. Just 27 bodies were recovered in the aftermath.

The Betelgeuse – carrying a full cargo of crude oil – left the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on 24 November 1978, destined for Leixões, Portugal. Due to a number of complications including an oil leak which was later repaired, the ship headed for Whiddy Island, located in Bantry Bay.

It arrived in the bay by 4 January and at 11.30pm on 6 January, it had completed berthing and had begun discharging 114,000 tonnes of oil, which was expected to take around 36 hours.

Betelguese 2 RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta

On the morning of Monday, 8 January, a cracking noise was heard coming from the vessel, followed by an explosion from the hull. The Betelgeuse was then engulfed in a ball of fire, and a series of other explosions followed that snapped the ship in half. 

Although the ship sank 12 hours after the explosion, rescuers were still not able to approach the wreck for two weeks due to clouds of toxic and flammable gas surrounding it. 

The Irish government appointed a tribunal to investigate the incident, presided over by Justice Declan Costello. He found that the poor condition of the 11-year-old vessel, at the end of her service; the training gap of the crew on board; and the inadequate firefighting methods on the ship and the jetty were to blame for the tragedy.

David Warner

Eoin Warner, a wildlife television documentary maker, was interviewed by An Saol Ó Dheas on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta about his father David who died in the incident.

Eoin Warner Eoin Warner, whose father died in the Whiddy Island disaster on 8 January 1979. RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta

“I often think about the men out there trying to send the radio message and getting no response at all for 20 minutes, and those hellish fires all around them and they could do nothing. The pumps weren’t even on, and they couldn’t fight the fires, they couldn’t put them out.

“I can’t imagine a worse death, between drowning and burning, it was horrific for them.”

Eoin was just two-and-a-half years old when his father died; his mother, who lost her own mother to breast cancer on the same day she lost her husband, had to raise her three sons on her own.

Eoin said that because he was so young, he remembers very little of his father.

“I was very young at the time, I was only two and a half when he died so I have very few memories of him – just one that’s all – and it’s such a pity because I can remember a lot after that.

It used to really upset me growing up, because my two brothers were older, they were five and just nine, so they remember him well.
I used to be jealous, because they could visualise him, I couldn’t do that. But looking back now as I get older, I realise that they paid dearly for those memories, because they understood what they had lost.

“I didn’t understand because I didn’t know him, really. But, having said that, growing up there was always a void, something missing, no doubt about that.”

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