Monday 24 June 2019

Government accused of failing to properly honour victims of Whiddy Island disaster

The oil tanker
The oil tanker " The Betelgeuse" which went on fire in Whiddy Island , Co. Cork
Whiddy Island, Co Cork
French tanker 'Betelgeuse' explodes at Whiddy Island in Cork in 1979 in what was Ireland's worst oil disaster

Ralph Riegel

THE Government was accused of failing to properly honour the memory of 51 Irish, French, UK and Dutch nationals who died in the 1979 Whiddy Island disaster with marine safety recommendations gathering dust on Government shelves.

The son of one Whiddy victim also hit out at the fact the Government was only represented at a special 40th anniversary memorial service by a Junior Minister despite all senior Irish politicians being asked to attend.

Junior Health Minister Jim Daly attended the memorial in Bantry in west Cork - but Michael Kingston, who lost his father, Tim, in the oil tanker explosion on January 8 1979, insisted someone of Cabinet rank or the minister with the specific portfolio involved should have attended as a mark of respect.

"I hoped I would not have to do this but that there would be compassion. But my hand has been reluctantly forced and I have to be true to myself. Today is an enormous day...the world is here today in Bantry and looking on. Ireland is a maritime nation. Nearly every Irish maritime institution is here today but where are the responsible ministers for these areas in the Irish Government?

Whiddy Island, Co Cork
Whiddy Island, Co Cork

"Where are our leaders to welcome our French friends here today? Where is the respect for our maritime sector and our rescue services?

"Let us be clear - 43 (French) people came into our jurisdiction and died in a workplace disaster that should never have happened.

"The failures that took place both on the ship and at the oil terminal were some of the the worst derelictions of duty in relation to safety in world maritime history."

Mr Kingston asked Mr Daly to immediately raise the Whiddy issue in the Dáil - and to urge Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to issue a public apology for what happened at the oil terminal 40 years ago.

"Today, the world is watching here in Bantry - raise these issues immediately in Cabinet. Set down a motion in the Dáil to enact Ireland's corporate manslaughter can ask the Taoiseach to issue an apology to all families," Mr Kingston told the memorial ceremony.

Mr Daly later said he was representing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the Government at the ceremony.

French tanker 'Betelgeuse' explodes at Whiddy Island in Cork in
1979 in what was Ireland's worst oil disaster
French tanker 'Betelgeuse' explodes at Whiddy Island in Cork in 1979 in what was Ireland's worst oil disaster

"That (an apology) is a judgement call for the Taoiseach to make," he said.

"I will certainly pass on that call to the Taoiseach. I am not going to speak or react on behalf of the Government. Clearly relatives are not happy and that will be looked at."

Hundreds attended the special memorial service in Bantry, Co Cork to mark the 40th anniversary of the fire and explosion on the

French-owned oil tanker MV Betelgeuse which wrecked the Whiddy oil jetty.

Relatives of the 51 Irish, French, UK and Dutch nationals who died in the tragedy and its aftermath attended the special ceremony at St Finbarr's Church in Bantry.

Afterwards, special wreath laying ceremonies took place at Bantry graveyard and near the disaster site where two boats brought relatives to Whiddy escorted by Naval Service, RNLI and Coast Guard vessels.

Virtually all Irish and international marine organisations were represented at the service.

Mr Kingston warned Ireland is duty-bound to ensure such a tragedy never again happens within Irish industry.

"You would have thought we would have learned from the Whiddy Island disaster but we have not learned," he warned.

"We need to wake up and wake up fast before further life is lost."

Mr Kingston said it was "inexplicable" that charges arising from the 1979 tragedy were later dismissed.

"The reasons for this have never been explained - it was a failing of the institutions of the Irish State," he said.

"There were also huge regulatory failings."

The Whiddy Island relatives warned that the legacy they want for their loved ones is the world's finest health and safety legislation and enforcement.

"It was very traumatic - any family who has suffered a sudden loss will understand. We had the awful pain of suffering and loss (from) not being able to say goodbye to those we loved," Mr Kingston said.

"It was a horrific disaster- the pain is multiplied by the atrocious manner in which our loved ones died, waiting for a rescue that never happened."

"A huge issue not just for what happened in Whiddy Island but also every worker in the Irish State is that Ireland still hasn't enacted corporate manslaughter charges which the Law Commission recommended in 2005 and which were implemented in the UK in 2007 - leaving the workers of Ireland wide open for deliberate failings by corporations in health and safety."

"There are still outstanding conventions in Ireland for the safety of our seafarers and our fishermen and to prevent our rescue services from being unnecessarily called out that are laying on Government shelves.

"You would have thought we would have learned from the failure to implement (such safety issues) from the Whiddy Island disaster."

A total of 50 people died when the oil tanker exploded while unloading its cargo at the Whiddy Island terminal operated by Gulf Oil in the early hours of January 8.

A 51st casualty was a Dutch salvage diver who died during subsequent work on the disaster site.

Mr Kingston, now a renowned London-based marine expert, marked his 44th birthday on January 7.

"In my eyes my father heroically remained at his post until the last," he told

"He was one of the two people on the jetty that night who, in conjunction with the ship (officers), had walkie-talkies and was desperately trying to get rescue boats called out and the fire hydrants turned on. Sadly, that never happened."

A total of seven Irish workers died in the explosion and fireball which was seen almost 25km away.

It was estimated the temperatures on the jetty at the height of the fire reached 1000C.

Those who died included Tim Kingston, Denis O'Leary, David Warner, Charlie Brennan, Neil O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan and Liam Shanahan Snr. Liam Shanahan Jnr, who was born the night his father died, said the families had supported each other over the years.

"It is a very emotional occasion. We will never forget what happened that night. We will never forget those that died," he said.

Denis O'Leary's daughter and grandson, Maura and Harry Baker, were also amongst those who attended the ceremony.

Betelgeuse, an ageing 120,000 tonne French-owned tanker, exploded in a fireball so intense as it unloaded a 110,000 tonne cargo of crude oil that rescue crews and tugs were unable to reach crew and workers stranded on the burning jetty.

An inquiry revealed that the tanker's hull cracked due to pressure strains during the unloading of the crude oil cargo.

The ageing vessel was in poor condition with corrosion to its hull.

A small fire began which was quickly followed by a massive explosion which resulted in the tanker splitting in half and a large portion of the jetty being sprayed with burning oil and debris.

Many of the French crew who died were asleep in their bunks when the explosion occurred.

Just 27 bodies of the 42 French, seven Irish and one UK nationals were recovered.

Such was the incredible violence of the explosion that pieces of the wrecked ship and oil assembly were blown into the Meelagh Valley some 10km away.

A huge piece of shrapnel from the ship - roughly the size of a car - narrowly missed one of the giant oil storage tanks on the island.

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