Maritime Cork: Whiddy disaster victims' rights in death 

Maritime Cork: Whiddy disaster victims' rights in death 
The Betelgeuse in flames in Bantry Bay. Pic: Richard Mills

I stood in Bantry Town Square last Thursday, in front of the big anchor from one of the shipwrecks of the French Armada.

It is an impressive, well-designed square which also has a statue of Wolfe Tone who survived the 1796 gale that destroyed the French Armada in its attempt to land in Bantry and begin an invasion of Ireland.

My thoughts went to another French shipwreck in Bantry Bay when I stood in that Town Square, a memory which time has not dimmed, in the dark hours when the sky was turned red and orange, with balls of fire bursting towards it amidst the sound of explosions and accompanied by clouds of smoke. 

It was around 3am on January 8, 1979, and there were many Bantry people on the street, uncertainty and fear reflected in eyes and ears attuned to the shocking sight and sounds from Whiddy Island, a short distance from the town, across Bantry Bay.

The French-owned oil tanker Betelgeuse was being torn apart and 50 people were dying at Whiddy Island.

I wanted to recall that experience in preparation for speaking at the Mother Jones Festival in the Firkin Crane Theatre on Cork city’s Northside on Friday night where the tragedy was the focus. 

Maritime lawyer Michael Kingston from Goleen, whose father, Tim, was one of those killed, was seeking justice He spoke for over an hour, outlining his extensive research into the tragedy as Vice- President of the Betelgeuse Relatives and Friends Association. 

Fifty people - 42 French, seven Irish and one English, died in the explosion. “My father and all those who died have been denied their final right under the ‘Right to Life’ provisions of European law. Their death certificates are incorrect. They died unlawfully,” he told the big attendance in a strong and understandably emotional speech. 

“They were left to die in atrocious circumstances.” The Association is going to the High Court, he said, alleging that the Irish State “failed to address multiple unlawful safety failings which caused the worst maritime disaster” in the country’s history. 

The relatives also want a State apology. Their decision follows the pathway taken by the action of the families of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in the UK. 

“We want a Coroner’s hearing reconvened and that the High Court should direct the Coroner to find that the deaths of their relatives were unlawful. My father is entitled to have his rights in death correctly described,” Michael Kingston said to a standing ovation from the audience.

The relatives’ action comes just after the Government has introduced a new search-and-rescue plan which has been stated to be “in response to the deaths of Coast Guard personnel in the Blacksod helicopter tragedy and the Kilkee rigid inflatable boat capsize.” 

Five people died in those tragedies. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board report into the Kilkee tragedy, in which volunteer Caitriona Lucas died, found that the Coast Guard did not have an effective Safety Management System. The Coast Guard has rejected that finding.

What was announced at the Mother Jones Festival, an impressive annual Summer School which discusses Irish issues, many of them controversial, could become a major maritime issue for the Government.

Eoin Warner who, like Michael Kingston, is the son of another victim – Maritime Pilot David Warner - was at the Mother Jones Festival and said “there has been a shadow of loss and pain over our childhoods and lives for the past 40 years. It is time to shine a light in that void of our lives, to give our fathers a voice stolen from them. We want justice. No child should have to go through what we went through.” 

“The facts are clearly set out in Mr Justice Declan Costello’s 1980 report on the disaster, but no action was taken,” Michael Kingston told me. 

“We relatives are determined. We are not going away. After 40 years we have stayed united in our purpose to seek justice for our relatives.” 

A ‘GoFundMe’ campaign has been launched. “The Irish people will help us, what we seek is justice,” Michael Kingston said.

BERE AND CAPE RADIO STATIONS

Bere Island now has its own community radio station, broadcasting to Beara. It brings to 16 the number of stations around the country broadcasting THIS ISLAND NATION, my maritime radio programme, which started on Youghal radio - CRY104FM - three years ago. 

Cork Community Radio and West Cork FM also transmit it. Public interest in the maritime sphere is good. Cape Clear Island is also considering having its own radio station. Broadcasting is a powerful community resource.

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