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Betelgeuse oil tanker ripped in half by two explosions at Whiddy Island Terminal on 8 January, 1979 Alamy Stock Photo
Bantry Bay

Tánaiste says previous inquiry into Whiddy Island disaster will be ‘further examined’

The disaster occurred in the early hours of 8 January, 1979, when an oil tanker exploded in Bantry Bay, killing 50 people.

TÁNAISTE MICHEÁL MARTIN has said that the previous tribunal of inquiry into the Whiddy Island disaster that killed 50 people in 1979 will be “further examined”.

The disaster occurred in the early hours of 8 January, 1979, when an oil tanker called the Betelgeuse exploded in Bantry Bay in Co Cork.

The Irish government appointed a tribunal to investigate the incident, and this report was released in May, 1980.

It found that the poor condition of the 11-year-old vessel, 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.

However, there have been calls for a full State inquiry into the disaster.


The Betelgeuse – carrying a full cargo of crude oil – left the Saudi port of Ras Tanura on 24 November 1978, destined for Leixões, Portugal.

However, following a number of complications, including an oil leak which was later repaired, the ship headed for Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay.

It arrived in the bay by 4 January, 1979 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.

On the morning of 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.

Of the 50 victims, there were 42 French nationals, seven Irish citizens, and one British man.

A Dutch diver also died during the rescue efforts.

Just 27 bodies were recovered in the aftermath.

Calls for a new inquest

Martin was asked today by The Journal if there is a possibility of a new inquest into the disaster.

He said he was aware that there’s “been a campaign for quite some time and those issues have been raised”.

Martin said he would have to “discuss further with the Minister for Transport (Eamon Ryan) on that”.

He added: “The issue is how best to get the outcome that would meet the needs of survivors of those who lost their lives in that disaster”.

Martin noted that a tribunal of inquiry report was released in 1980 and acknowledged that “members of families of those who lost their lives are not satisfied with the outcome of that inquiry”.

“It speaks to the mechanisms by which these issues are investigated, so that will be further examined,” said Martin.

Meanwhile, Independent Ireland leader and Cork TD Michael Collins has called for a “full state inquiry” into the Whiddy Island disaster.

He compared it to the Stardust fire and remarked that “it is not the only historical incident where dozens of lives were lost and where egregious regulatory failures has contributed to an ongoing nightmare for innocent families”.

Collins also said that the original post-mortems and investigations “did not refer to the regulatory failures which contributed to the disaster, contrary to established fundamental legal principles”.

He called on Taoiseach Simon Harris to “confirm without delay that the State will not replicate the historical failures of the Stardust tragedy by denying the Whiddy Island terminal families access to a process that can allow the full facts to emerge”.

-With additional reporting by Niall O’Connor

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