Monday 24 June 2019

'They were waiting for a rescue that never happened' - families of 1979 Whiddy Island disaster victims fly in for 40th anniversary

The oil tanker
The oil tanker " The Betelgeuse" which went on fire in Whiddy Island , Co. Cork

Ralph Riegel

A IRISH marine expert paid emotional tribute to his father as one of the heroes of the 1979 Whiddy Island disaster for ignoring his own safety as he bravely stayed at his post by the burning oil tanker in a bid to save as many lives as possible.

Michael Kingston paid tribute to his late father, Tim, who died in the aftermath of the oil tanker explosion as relatives of the seven Irish victims gathered at Cork airport to welcome the families of the 44 French, UK and Dutch victims of Ireland's worst maritime tragedy of modern times.

The families who lost loved ones in the Betelgeuse oil tanker disaster at Whiddy Island flew into Ireland for a special 40th anniversary ceremony to be staged in west Cork this morning.

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 1979.

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

The special memorial service to be staged in Bantry today was organised by marine surveyor, Michael Kingston, who lost his father, Tim, in the disaster.

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 said.

"You can imagine what it was like with a foreign-speaking crew desperately asking the local employees how do we get off this bloody jetty."

"There was no way off - and the safety boat that should have taken seven minutes to arrive, they waited for 25 minutes.

"Unfortunately they were denied their natural human instinct to save themselves because they relied on the system. Had they immediately swam to safety, they would be alive today.

"It was an atrocious situation but my father heroically remained at his post.

"Indeed, he was later found with two local people, one of whom couldn't swim, eight months later and one of their wives said that he probably tried to assist in saving them at the last minute.

"My father was an employee of Gulf Oil and was an oil pollution control officer (at Whiddy) to be closer to his family in Goleen," he said.

"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.

Those who died included Tim Kingston, Denis O'Leary, David Warner, Charlie Brennan, Neil O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan and Liam Shanahan.

Denis O'Leary's daughter and grandson, Maura and Harry Baker, were amongst those who welcomed the French families to Cork.

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.

Mr Kingston warned that the lessons of the Whiddy disaster have still not been enacted.

"Any family will understand the scale of the loss we have suffered," he 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.

"To compound that, there was a failing of the institutions of the Irish State - and there were also huge regulatory failings.

"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.

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

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

The memorial service will be staged at St Finbarr's Church in Bantry at 11am today.

Following the service, members of the Irish-French Betelgeuse Association will lay a wreath at Bantry graveyard where some of the victims are buried.

Special boats will also bring the families to the disaster site at Whiddy.

A number of leading maritime organisations will be represented at the memorial together with the Naval Service, Irish Coast Guard and several embassies.

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