A TERRIFYING rumbling shattering a still winter’s night, was the prelude to Ireland’s worst maritime disaster, a quarter of a century ago.The subsequent explosion aboard the ill-fated supertanker Betelgeuse discharged a massive fireball which turned the West Cork night sky orange and spewed its flames over Bantry Bay.
As temperatures soared to almost 1,000 degrees, 50 people, including a crewman’s wife, perished. Crewmen aboard the badly-rusting and fractured tanker, along with workers at the Whiddy Island oil terminal were blown by the force of the explosion into the burning sea.
For the 40 islanders living on Whiddy, just a mile off the town off Bantry, hell’s fires had erupted on their doorstep. In the follow-up salvage operation, a further life was claimed when a Dutch diver died.
At about 1:00 a.m. (evidence on the precise time conflicts) on Monday, 8 January, a rumbling or cracking noise was heard from the vessel, followed shortly by a huge explosion within its hull. The force of the explosion was seen to blow men from the jetty into the sea. Local residents reported seeing the Betelgeuse engulfed in a ball of fire a few moments later. A series of further explosions followed, breaking the vessel in half. Much of the oil cargo still on board ignited and this generated temperatures estimated to exceed 1,000 °C. The concrete unloading jetty crumbled and firefighters, arriving on the scene from several neighbouring towns, were unable to get near the vessel. The firefighters concentrated their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to the tanks of the storage farm and on containing the oil spillage. Local families living on the island fled for their lives.
About 12 hours after the explosion the Betelgeuse sank at her moorings in 40 metres (130 ft) of water (with her stern becoming completely submerged), which largely extinguished the main body of the fire. In spite of this, rescue workers were not able to approach the wreck (the bows of which was still above water) for two weeks due to clouds of toxic and inflammable gas surrounding it. After two weeks, it was possible to start recovering bodies from the wreck and pumping off the remainder of the oil cargo that was still on board.