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In 1979, a tragic maritime disaster occurred on Whiddy Island just off the coast of Bantry, a town in West Cork in the Southern part of Ireland.
Situated between peninsulas in Bantry Bay, Whiddy Island is known as one of the world's finest deepwater harbours. It also has a naval history, its location giving it a unique strategical position which was used in World War One.
This prime location enticed Gulf Oil to build an oil silo facility on the island. It was an investment which brought millions of pounds and hundreds of jobs to the area. Huge international oil tankers would dock at Whiddy to offload their crude oil. The area of the entire Island is 1,005 acres (406 hectares). It had at the time of the disaster a population of 63.
On 4th January 1979, the vessel M.V "Betelguese" arrived in Bantry Bay, she was a large tanker and was carrying a cargo of 115,000 metric tonnes of Arabian heavy crude oil. She was not meant to travel to Cork, the weather was so poor at Sines, south of Lisbon, she couldn't dock there and was diverted. The vessel was owned by Total Oil. Below is a picture of the vessel sometime before the disaster.
On Sunday the 7th of January, men from across Cork said goodbye to their families leaving for the terminal. One man on duty was Tim Kingston, the pollution officer for Whiddy, a father of three young children (Michael, Mary Bernadette and Nora-Marie) and a devoted husband to his wife Mary Kingston.
Tim had celebrated his son's 4th birthday with his wife, children and family but he left his home in Goleen for work. Tim, worked for Gulf Oil, Terminals (Ireland) Ltd. The oil terminal is situated at the south-west of Whiddy Island. It comprises a tank farm and other onshore works occupying an area of 120 acres (48.6 hectares). Tim started his shift at 8pm with the other men who worked to extract the oil from the ship.
On the Island are twelve crude oil storage tanks in the tank farm, each capable of holding 80,000 tons. The oil ships docked off an offshore jetty just off Whiddy Island, the offshore jetty is 1,600 feet in length and consists basically of centre island-like structures standing on piles. These grouped together are referred to as "dolphins". Dolphin 1 is the most westerly dolphin (nearest to the open sea) and Dolphin 22 is the most easterly (nearest to the head of the Bay).
On the Island, was a crew of men tasked with pumping the oil to the enormous baths across the Island. Each one, holding thousands of litres. Working on the Island was Mr. John Connolly (dispatcher), Mr. John Downey and Mr. Brian McGee (pumpmen), Mr. James Kearns and Mr. Patrick O'Donnell (PPOs).
In the early hours of Sunday 8th of January, a fire begins onboard the Betelgeuse docked on the offshore jetty. The dispatcher in the control tower on the island watches on but did not see the start of the fire. He did not alert the emergency services until crucial time had passed.
The Irish crew working on the jetty alongside the ship are: Mr. Timothy Kingston (PCO), Mr. James O'Sullivan (jetty foreman), Mr. Denis O'Leary (PPO), Mr. Charles Brennan, Mr William Shanahan and Mr. Cornelius O'Shea (utilitymen). Captain David Warner took up duty as the pilot.
On board the vessel was a crew of French workers and on the jetty a team of Irish were supervising the ship. Tragically the jetty, was cut off from the island as a bridge had been removed to make space for a second vessel to offload its cargo. As the fire raged there was no escape. 50 people lost their lives on that night. One of them was Tim Kingston.
To this day major questions remain about the arrangements in place for the safety of the workers. Many of those who have suffered are for the first time speaking out in the Documentary On One: Fire in the Sky.
Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, was a reporter for RTÉ TV. McAleese recalls the mood in Bantry, when she reported from the town when a tribunal report was published. Justice Declan Costello
A special thanks to all the management and staff at The West Lodge Hotel, Bantry for access for recordings.
The picture above outlines the names and occupations of those who died in Bantry, West Cork in 1979. In all, 51 people died, 42 French citizens, 1 British citizen, 1 Dutch citizen and 7 Irish citizens.
Narrated by Donal O'Herlihy
Produced by Donal O’Herlihy and Michael Lawless
Sound Supervision by Peadar Carney
First broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 - Saturday 02nd October, 2021 at 2pm
Repeated on RTÉ Radio 1 - Sunday 03rd October, 2021 at 6pm
An Irish radio documentary from RTÉ Radio 1, Ireland - Documentary on One - the home of Irish radio documentaries