A SURVIVOR of Bantry Bay's Whiddy inferno has spoken for the first time of the horrors he witnessed when an oil tanker exploded at Gulf Oil's Irish terminal.
Brian McGee was one of two men who desperately fought to keep burning wreckage away from twelve 80,000-tonne crude oil tanks while colleagues ran hopelessly for their lives from the flames.
In a new documentary about the 1979 tragedy, he tells how ill-prepared the Gulf Oil company was for such a disaster and reveals how they "closed ranks" when investigations began.
Fifty people perished in the explosion on the French-owned Betelgeuse tanker which later emerged to be in poor repair and leaking oil. Just 27 bodies of the 42 French nationals, seven Irish and one Dutch were recovered.
Pump man Brian McGee was playing cards with colleague John Downey when the alarm sounded just after midnight on January 8, 1979.
"I died that night," he says plainly. "The Brian McGee that went to work that night never returned. I'm not the same person."
Business had slowed at the terminal which was in operation over 10 years at the time of the explosion. With the re-opening of the Suez Canal and successive oil crises, super-tanker traffic had become less economically viable, so Whiddy was no longer that busy. But in the early Seventies, its arrival in the unemployment blackspot of Bantry was akin to a goldrush.
However, on January 7, the Betelgeuse pulled in to the Cork island to off-load her cargo of crude oil.
By midnight two-thirds of the cargo of crude oil had been off-loaded and most of the French crew were asleep on the ship while Irish workers were on the central platform of the jetty.
Then a crack opened in the ship and a small fire started inside which would lead to the worst maritime disaster in Irish history.
Gulf Oil was slow to react and the alarm was not raised until shortly before 1am, at which time the fire had become an inferno.
Brian and colleague John were ordered to get to the fire pumps and try to fight back the blaze.
"We were speechless. I remember I had my boots off and I just jumped into them. We went for the landrover and headed for the fire pumps," Brian recalls.
But the fire was already out of control: "I actually spotted the people on the jetty running down to Dolphin 22. It was like as if the fire was after them. It was like a huge hand. They were running so fast and it was trying to catch them and it was so frightening. That vision has stayed with me to this day."
The offshore jetty was 500 metres long and at each end were platforms known as Dolphin 22 and Dolphin 1.
Unfortunately, had the victims run for Dolphin 1 it is likely most would have survived. Instead, they headed for the ill-fated Dolphin 22 where they perished in the flames.
Pilot David Warner, a father-of-three who died that night, tried to jump to safety in the water below him.
"I was in the control room when David Warner called and he said he was going to jump off the deck; he asked that the tugs be instructed to keep a look out for him. Those were his last words," says Brian. "My workmate John got very emotional over it and I just caught him by the shoulders and said: 'Forget them. They're gone. We've a job to do, the island is in danger.' I wondered afterwards how I could say such cruel words."
But the night became even more apocalyptic as the 40 civilian inhabitants of Whiddy Island fled in a flotilla of small boats and the Betelgeuse split in half - causing a explosion that was heard 30 miles away.
Desperately, Brian and John tried to fight the blaze from reaching the 12 massive crude oil tanks on shore.
"We put a single hose on a tank and there was steam rising off it. I heard the next day that a huge lump of ship the size of a kitchen table had landed only feet away from one of the tanks. That ship was a third of a mile away.
"Had it hit, the pipeline could have ignited the whole island. I know in my heart and soul that myself and my colleagues saved the island that night."
By early morning light the scale of the fire became apparent with shocking images of the human and ecological disaster world-wide.
"People were asking questions. But I couldn't give them an answer because I didn't have any," said Brian. "I found myself in a church asking God if he was there. I hadn't talked to him too much before that."
The tribunal of enquiry that followed heard the testimony of 200 witnesses. It ruled that the disaster occurred because of the poor condition of the tanker and the incorrect un-loading of the ship which caused it to break in two. It criticised Gulf Oil for its lack of safety procedures but commended Brian and John Downey for their actions.
Gulf Oil paid $120m (€87m) in compensation for the clean-up operation - but Brian and other survivors never even got a day off.
"They didn't consider the side effects it had on the people on the jetty that night," he says. "We were like the living dead, if you like. It was soul-destroying."
'Disasters' is on RTE1 this Tuesday at 8.30pm