Whiddy Disaster: ‘We were like living dead on that jetty’

Tomorrow marks 40 years since the Whiddy Island disatser in which 50 people lost their lives. Chris Dunne spoke to Brian McGee, the last surviving member, about the incident.
Whiddy Disaster: ‘We were like living dead on that jetty’

The burning wreck of the French tanker ‘Betelgeuse’ which exploded at the Whiddy Island oil terminal, Bantry Bay on January 8, 1979 with the loss of over 50 lives. Picture: Ian Vickery

IT is 40 years since the Whiddy Island disaster when 50 people lost their lives. But for survivor, Brian McGee, a Gulf Oil crew member working on the island terminal, it could have been yesterday.

“The sound of the explosion was heard throughout most of West Cork,” says Brian.

“People as far away as Ballinascarthy, 35 miles as the crow flies, put it down to a violent thunderstorm in the West.”

In the 40 years since the tragedy, Brian, one of five Gulf workers who fought relentlessly and at great personal risk for many hours to keep burning wreckage away from 12 80,000-tonne crude oil tanks, while colleagues ran hopelessly for their lives from the flames, has often been reminded that he should be grateful for having survived, unlike seven of his co-workers. Just 27 bodies of the 42 French nationals, seven Irish, and one Dutch, was recovered.

“I died that night,” says Brian, who along with his colleague, John Downey, fought to stop the fire spreading, where a further explosion would have had catastrophic effects for the town of Bantry.

“The Brian McGee who went to work that night never returned. I’m not the same person.”

Brian McGee, the author of Living with the Whiddy Disaster, is the last surviving member of the Gulf Oil crew on Whiddy Island.
Brian McGee, the author of Living with the Whiddy Disaster, is the last surviving member of the Gulf Oil crew on Whiddy Island.

Brian, after his heroic battle, suffered severely from a classic case of post-traumatic stress, (PTSD), in the years after the French tanker, Betelgeuse, went on fire at the terminal’s jetty in the early hours of January 8, 1979.

“Today, the post-traumatic stress disorder, which I now have under some control, triggers around Christmas time or when I’m stressed,” says Brian.

“I can handle all those situations but for all that time I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I thought I was going mad. It took over 30 years before I learned the root of my problems. But I can hold on to what is left and hope it sees me through the rest of my life.”

After working on the jetty for eight years, Brian was promoted to pump operator.

On January 7, 1979, Betelgeuse pulled into the terminal that had been opened 10 years 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.

“Even looking out at the ship from the island; she just looked like a rust bucket,” says Brian.

“She seemed to be too long in the one position which may have put too much stress on an ageing ship. It is possible that the ship was leaking cargo oil already because the whole sea became alight within minutes after it caught fire.”

A crack opened in the ship and a small fire started inside which would lead to the worst maritime disaster in Irish history. The alarm wasn’t raised until shortly before 1am, at which time the fire had become an inferno.

“We were speechless,” says Brian.

With the tragic incident embedded in his memory, Brian thinks what might have been, had things been different.

“It was sad that the jetty crew, which was made up of three relief workers and a relief foreman, had no proper fire training. The agreement between the union and management was that there would be a permanent utility man trained in all aspects of the jetty.

“In our fire training, we were told to always get to the windy side of the fire and to act fast and ask questions later.”

Brian did not note any times during the event but says the inquiry only appeared interested in the times.

“When everyone knew she was a dodgy ship, it’s a pity that somebody didn’t get a key for the locked gate leading to Dolphin 1, where there was a diesel pump with a Rolls Royce engine. One single key would have given them access”, says Brian, his voice lowering with emotion.

“All they had to do was open the fire hydrant and they would have automatic access to cooling water for the fire that soared at over 1,000 degrees centigrade.”

The Betelgeuse on fire at Whiddy Island terminal.
The Betelgeuse on fire at Whiddy Island terminal.

Brian still sees images of the fire in his mind’s eye.

“The fire was out of control. I actually spotted the people on the jetty running down to Dolphin 22.”

The off-shore jetty was 500 metres long and at each end were platforms known as Dolphin 22 and Dolphin 1.

“It was as if the fire was after them,” says Brian, recalling the apocalypse that has haunted him for 40 years.

“They were running so fast and in the wrong direction.”

The off-shore jetty was 500 metres long and at each end were the platforms.

“It was like a huge hand,” says Brian, describing the fire.

“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.”

Had the victims run for Dolphin 1, it is likely most would have survived. The grim night grew ever more wretched as the explosion, heard 30 miles away, consumed Whiddy Island.

Brian, John Downey, Jimmy Kernes and Pat O’Donnell, against the odds, including a fire engine that would not start, fire hoses that had not been readied for use, a lack of breathing masks, levers missing on hydrants, desperately tried to stop the blaze reaching the massive 12 crude onshore oil tanks.

“We put a single hose on the tank and there was steam rising off it,” says Brian.

“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,” says Brian, expanding his hands over the dining table where we sit in the Fir Grove Hotel, Mitchelstown.

“Had it hit, the pipeline could have ignited the whole of Whiddy Island.”

Brian, whose workmates, including Charlie Brennan, Tim Kingston, Denis O’Leary, Neilly O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan, and Liam Shanahan, who all perished, prevented that from happening.

When dawn broke, the scale of the fire and the tragic loss of life became apparent.

“I didn’t have any answers to the questions people were asking,” says Brian.

He has questions of his own.

The tribunal that followed heard the testimony of 200 witnesses. The ruling found that the disaster occurred because of the poor condition of Betelgeuse and the incorrect unloading of the ship which caused it to split in two.

It commended Brian and John Downey for their brave actions.

“They didn’t consider the terrible effects the fire had on the people on the jetty that night,” says Brian.

“We were like the living dead. It was soul destroying. Battling the inferno for what seemed like an eternity, I was filled with sheer dread, expecting at any moment that the tanks would overheat or be punctured and detonate, leaving Eleanor a widow and my little ones orphans.”

Tomorrow marks 40 years since the Whiddy Island disaster in which 50 people lost their lives.
Tomorrow marks 40 years since the Whiddy Island disaster in which 50 people lost their lives.

Brian is forthright about the tribunal of inquiry.

“It scape-goated the late terminal controller, John Connolly, while ignoring the State’s failure to ensure Gulf’s safety practices were up to standard.”

Brian is hard on himself too.

“The images and the voices crashed about in my head and I felt ashamed to be alive,” he says, speaking about the awful aftermath of a disaster which shocked Ireland and the world.

Brian and his family still live in Bantry where life goes on, and where he continues his recovery of the mental hell that he has endured for so many years.

“You know that in the wake of the Vietnam War, post-traumatic stress was a bigger killer than the war itself, through alcohol, drugs and suicide.”

The 40th Memorial anniversary mass takes place at St. Finbarr’s Church tomorrow, January 8, 11am, followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the Abbey cemetery, Bantry.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Echo 130Echo 130

Podcast: 1000 Cork songs 
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Crowley talks to John Dolan

Listen Here

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more