January 8, 1979
Whiddy Island, Bantry Bay, Ireland
The Betelgeuse, an oil tanker, explodes while docked at a jetty, killing 50

The vessel, which was carrying 39 million gallons (147,000 kiloliters) of crude oil was docked at the offshore jetty while performing an oil-removal operation. An eyewitness reported seeing a small fire on the ship around 12:30 a.m., and within 10 minutes the fire had overtaken the vessel. After another 20 minutes had passed, a series of explosions ruptured the ship’s hull and tanks and ignited the fuel the Betelgeuse was holding, resulting in the ship being bisected, flames reaching 300 feet (91 meters), and temperatures exceeding an estimated 1000ºC (1832ºF).

All aboard the Betelgeuse — 41 cremates, the pilot, a cargo inspector, and a crewmate’s wife — as well as 6 shore-based staff were killed in the explosion. By nightfall on the 8th, 15 of the victims’ bodies had been recovered, some as far as 500 yards (457 meters) away from the jetty, with each being “badly mutilated and horribly burned,” as the Associated Press reported. A total of 27 bodies were found, though the remaining 23 were never recovered. A final victim, a diver working with the wreck removal operation, was also killed.

Brian McGee, a survivor who had been working on the jetty at the time of the explosion and who combated the fires with three colleagues, explained the disaster could have been considerably worse had a piece of debris struck terminal equipment and ignited the 250 million gallons (nearly 1 million kiloliters) of crude oil the terminal was storing. “The next day I heard a huge lump of ship the size of this table had landed only feet away from one of the tanks. Had it hit, the pipeline could have ignited the whole of Whiddy Island.”

The fireball created by the burning crude oil could be seen — and the sound of the explosion could be heard — from miles away. McGee stated the explosion could be heard 35 miles (56 km) away, though it was mistaken for thunder by many.

Decades later, a witness who had been 12 at the time of the explosion, described his experience as “like daylight going across the harbour, the light from the flames, the flames were unbelievable.” He also spoke of the bodies and various debris from the ship which had been ejected 40 meters (130 feet) into the air, recounting, “It was like Pompeii.”

An investigation launched by the Irish government found the ship had been in a poor state before the explosion, and her structure was “abnormally, seriously and significantly wasted due to corrosion.” The 480-page report concluded “an important cause of the excessive corrosion was [French oil company] Total’s decision not to renew the cathodic protection in the permanent ballast tanks and/or its failure to have the tanks coated with protective coating.” Reportedly, the company had neglected maintenance because it was planning to sell the ship as she was at the end of her service life.

Nautilus International, Ian Vickery/Michael Kingston

Sources:
Oakley, Ben. True Crime Encyclopedia 1978-1981. Twelvetrees Publishing, 2021
“Whiddy Disaster: ‘We were like living dead on that jetty’.” Echo Live. January 7, 2019. Accessed: January 8, 2021. https://www.echolive.ie/corknews/arid-40162119.html
“Ireland’s worst modern maritime accident 40th anniversary.” Nautilus International. February 4, 2019. Accessed: January 8, 2021. https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/telegraph/irelands-worst-modern-maritime-accident-40th-anniversary/
Baker, Noel. “Whiddy Island 40 years on: Still a sense of justice not having been done.” Irish Examiner. January 7, 2019. Accessed: January 8, 2021. https://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/arid-30895935.html
“Tanker blast inquiry opens.” The Guardian [London, England]. April 27, 1979
“Explosions Rip Oil Tanker Killing 50.” The Pensacola Journal. January 9, 1979
“47 feared dead as oil tanker explodes in Ireland harbor.” The Miami News. January 8, 1979

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