THE SINKING OF THE MV BETELGEUSE

BY MICHAEL KIRWAN (IRELAND)

During the 1960s, ships were being built bigger and bigger and shipping companies in oil transportation soon realised that it would become more economical to move oil between the Persian Gulf and Europe using ultra large crude carrier (ULCC) vessels. These vessels were so large that they were not able to enter most of the coastal ports on the Atlantic Ocean, North Sea and English Channel coast.

In April 1966, Gulf Oil Corporation announced at its AGM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that it was going to build its main European distribution oil terminal centre on Whiddy Island, Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland. They ordered six 300,000-ton ULCC vessels from Japan for delivery between mid-1968 and mid-1969.

WHIDDY ISLAND

The island is located in the south-west of Ireland, 2 miles (3.2km) out from Bantry town, in the County of Cork. It is approximately 3.5 miles (5.6 km) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 km) at its widest part. The island had a population of 64 people mainly engaged in fishing and small farming.

The oil terminal was situated on the south-west of the island. It comprised a tank farm and other onshore facilities occupying an area of approximately 120 acres (48.6 hectares). A jetty, 498 metres (545 yards) long, was built 385 metres (422 feet) out from the island. The jetty was built on 22 piles/marine structures called dolphins. The one on the west of the jetty was called Dolphin 1 (which was closed off) and the one at the east end was called Dolphin 22. Dolphin 22 housed a security hut, coin telephone box and was used to embark/disembark from the launch that brought people and crew to the mainland and island. At the beginning of its operation the jetty was accessible by a Bailey-bridge from the terminal area.

On the 5 June 1967, Israel began the Six-Day War against the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. The following day Gamal Abdal – Nasser closed the Suez Canal. The New York Times wrote the next day.

“For a ship travelling from the Persian Gulf, where many of the Arabian oil ports are, to Britain and Western Europe, the voyage around the southern tip of Africa will take 16 days longer, add 4,800 miles of travel and increase the overall cost of the voyage by as much as $20,000.” [Approximately equivalent to $154,600 in 2020].

This made the development on Whiddy Oil Terminal all the more necessary.

The first of the ULCC tankers, MV Universe Ireland arrived in Bantry Bay on 29 October 1968 with 310,150 tons of crude oil. At the time, she was the largest ship in the world – 312,000 dwt. It was planned that one of the six ships would arrive in Bantry Bay every ten days and approximately three feeder tankers would distribute the crude oil to refineries in Wales, Denmark, the Netherlands and Spain.

The construction and operation of the terminal temporarily transformed the economy in the area.

The terminal was very successful for the first five years of operation. The Suez Canal reopened on 10 June 1975 and the economics of ULCC’s began to appear less attractive. There was an economic recession and a rise in oil prices. In addition, industries began to implement a new system called “just in time” where minimum time would be spent in storage of products to cut costs. By the late 1970s, the local Gulf operating company, Gulf Oil Terminals (Ireland) Ltd, was struggling to maintain the viability of the terminal.

MV BETELGEUSE

On 24 November 1978, the MV Betelgeuse left the Saudi Arabian port of Ras Tanura in the Persian Gulf bound for Leixões, Portugal with a full cargo of crude oil. Outbound from Leixões, she sailed through the Suez Canal, but on the return journey, fully loaded, she sailed around South Africa. Originally, the plan was to call at Sines, south of Lisbon, to lighten the ship, but the weather was too bad to enter the harbour. She then proceeded to Leixões, but was also unable to discharge her cargo there as a ship had sunk across the harbour entrance. She was then instructed to proceed to Bantry Bay.

She arrived in Bantry Bay on the 4 January 1979 but had to wait to berth as her sister ship, the MV Casiopee, had, by coincidence, arrived a few days before. It was the Casiopee’s last voyage as she was sold for scrap and was going to Formosa (now Taiwan) to be broken up.

The Betelgeuse berthed on the north side of the jetty at Whiddy Island just after 2000 hrs on Saturday, 6 January. The Bailey-bridge was long gone so as to make room for tankers berthing on both sides of the jetty. The jetty was now only accessible by launch or boat. Dolphin 22 on the eastern end of the jetty was from where the crew came and went from the ship. Located there, was an old-fashioned coin phone box where the crew used to phone home from. Unloading the crude oil commenced before midnight and continued through Sunday.

On Sunday, some of the crew went ashore to Bantry town and came back before midnight. During the day, two surveyors acting for two different prospective purchasers of the vessel visited the ship. In the evening, at 2000 hrs, the five Gulf oil workers commenced their shift at the terminal and six more on the jetty. On board the ship were 41 crew, the baker’s wife, a pilot and a cargo inspector.

Early on Monday at 0031 hrs, a fi re started midships. Suddenly, ten minutes later, the fi re spread along the ship and about 25 minutes later, there was a massive explosion followed shortly by another one and several smaller ones. The ship broke its back in two places where the explosions occurred. Several of the crew were working on the ship at the time and scrambled down the gangway and ran to Dolphin 22 at the eastern end of the jetty in the hope of rescue.

Three or four of the crew jumped off the poop deck into the water. However, burning oil covered the water in a blanket of fire therefore denying any of the crew or jetty workers who jumped from the blazing vessel and jetty into the water any chance of survival.

However, it was 13 minutes after the fire started before the dispatcher in the Control Building noticed it. From the seat at the control desk, the dispatcher would have had an unrestricted view of the jetty and a tanker berthed there. At night-time, the whole area was well illuminated. When the dispatcher saw the fire, he immediately activated the fire pumps, attempted to close the emergency block valves, phoned Gulf’s Operating Manager, the Donemark launch, the duty tug Bantry Bay, his colleagues on the island, the postmistress and the pollution officer on the jetty.

The fi re engine at the terminal failed to start. There were problems with fire hydrants, fire hoses along with no breathing apparatus or protective clothing.

The personnel launch Donemark was called out from Ascon Jetty, but was unable to assist due to the oil burning in the water and the intense heat from the flames. Ascon Jetty was a small craft jetty on the south-western shore of Whiddy Island harbour used by Oil Terminal personnel.

Bantry, Skibbereen and Dunmanway fire brigades eventually managed to get on to the island on small ferry ships. Bantry Fire Brigade found that two land rovers and the terminal fire tender would not start. Later, a truck bringing fire equipment from Ascon Jetty to the tank farm broke down.

Meanwhile, the tug Bantry Bay, on stand-by duty, was called. She was moored 2.8 miles away out of sight of the Betelgeuse. It was 40 minutes before she arrived and could render little assistance. The skipper had considered pulling the Betelgeuse away from the jetty, but it was not possible to release the quick-release mechanism on the jetty to free the tanker.

The weather was partly cloudy with an air temperature of about 6° to 7° C and a westerly to south-westerly force 3 to 4 wind.

There was fear the fire would spread from the ship and jetty to the tank farm. The Gulf terminal employees and the local fi re fighters concentrated their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to the tanks on the storage farm. Fourteen families living on the island fled to the mainland in a flotilla of small boats in fear of their lives.

Brian Mc Gee recalls in his book ‘Living with The Whitty Disaster’:

“The sound of the explosion was heard throughout most of West Cork. People as far as Ballinascarthy, about thirty-five miles as the crow flies, put it down to a violent thunderstorm in the west. A dinner dance at the West Lodge Hotel [Bantry] came to a halt when the floor began to tremble, and the candelabras shook violently… The skies above Bantry were turned into an orange sheet that could be seen for miles around.”

About 12 hours after the explosions, the ship sank at her moorings and the fire died out by about 2000 hrs that Sunday evening. Clouds of toxic and flammable gas surrounded the wreck. After two weeks, it was possible to start recovering the bodies from the wreck and pumping out the remainder of the crude oil cargo.

TRIBUNAL

The Irish government appointed a tribunal to investigate the incident. It went on for over a year and in July 1980 the 480-page report was published.

The headline in The Times newspaper on 26 July 1980 read: “Total and Gulf accused over 50-death tanker blast”.

FINDINGS OF THE TRIBUNAL

1 Total Compagnie Française de Navigation – the owners of MV Beltelgeuse.

The Tribunal concluded:

(a) that the initiating event of the disaster was the buckling of the ship’s structure followed by explosions. These events were produced as a result of two separate factors: a serious weakened hull due to inadequate maintenance and an excessive stress due to incorrect ballasting on the night of the disaster; and

(b) that the vessel had no inert gas system. This system was designed to prevent explosions of combustible gas which accumulates as oil is being discharged. Total said the system was not standard when the tanker was built in 1968.

2 Gulf Oil Terminals (Ireland) Ltd, – the owners of Whiddy Oil Terminal. The Tribunal concluded :

(a) that the dispatcher on duty at Gulf Control was absent from the Control Room when the disaster commenced;

(b) that the standby tug Bantry Bay was not moored where it should have been;

(c) that Gulf failed to provide suitable escape craft for evacuation in an emergency; and

(d) that Gulf had been wrong in dismantling disembarkation facilities from Dolphin 1 and the automatic pressurisation of the fi re-mains.

The tribunal was also critical of the government for its failure to put in place regulations that would ensure that proper safety and emergency procedures were adhered to by Gulf Oil Terminals (Ireland) Ltd. There was no harbour authority established with jurisdiction over Whiddy Island and there was a failure to establish bye-laws under the provision of the Petroleum Act.

The tribunal’s findings were never accepted by Total – the owners of the Betelgeuse.

Salvage operations lasted over a year with the salvage fi rm L Smit & Co, splitting the rest of the Betelgeuse into three parts and re-floating each part with foam. The stern was brought to the surface and towed to Valentia, Spain where it was broken up. During the salvage operation the life of one diver was lost.

THE FUNERAL ON FEBRUARY 5, 1979, OF UNIDENTIFIED VICTIMS OF THE BETELGEUSE OIL TANKER FIRE AT THE WHIDDY ISLAND OIL TERMINAL IN WEST CORK. [M MINIHANE]

In total, 51 people died – 41 crew members of the Betelgeuse, the baker’s wife, the Irish pilot, a cargo inspector, six Gulf jetty workers and a Dutch diver during salvage operations. Only 27 bodies were recovered from the 5 1 that died. The recovered bodies are buried in St Finbarr’s Church graveyard, Bantry overlooking Bantry Harbour.

2020ST FINBARR’S GRAVEYARD, BANTRY. [M KIRWAN]

Several memorial services have been held to commemorate anniversaries of the incident. Many of the relatives and friends from France attended the event.

It was 1983 before the seas and coast around Bantry were clear. Gulf never reopened the terminal and in 1986 they surrendered its lease to the Irish government.

Nineteen years later, it was decided to open the terminal again and use the giant storage tanks for Ireland’s strategic national oil reserve. On 14 April 1998, the Norwegian ship MV Prospect docked at Whiddy’s new single point mooring jetty, then owned by Irish National Petroleum Company. In 2001, it was sold to US oil giant, Tosco, which was later acquired by Phillips 66. In 2015, it was sold again to Zenith Energy, Houston, Texas to serve as a critical commercial link to Europe. With seventeen oil storage tanks, Whiddy has the capacity of almost nine million barrels and stores a significant portion of the Irish Republic’s oil reserves.

REFERENCES

TRIBUNAL REPORT ON THE DISASTER AT WHIDDY ISLAND, BANTRY, CO CORK ON 8 JANUARY 1979. PUBLISHED: 9 MAY 1980.MCGEE, BRIAN. LIVING WITH THE WHIDDY DISASTER. DROMBEG BOOKS. 2014.HTTPS://EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG/WIKI/WHIDDY_ISLAND_DISASTER VIEWED 04/05/2020

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