tanker burning

The waters off Whiddy Island, a 3-mile long strip of green nestled in Bantry Bay in the county of Cork, Ireland, are deep and calm. The surrounding area is sparsely-populated, a faraway corner of the emerald isle. Thirty-five years ago today, in the wee hours of the morning of January 8, 1979, a gigantic fireball erupted into the sky over the waters off Whiddy Island, as the 120,000-ton oil tanker Betelgeuse blew itself apart in a colossal explosion. Fifty people died in the disaster.

The story behind the Betelgeuse disaster goes like this. In 1966 Gulf Oil Company was looking for a way to supply the European energy market more economically and stably than relying on the Suez Canal which the Arabs were threatening to close to Western commerce. The company decided to build a fleet of new tankers, the largest ever built, and ship oil in them from the Middle East around the horn of Africa. They needed a facility somewhere on the western crust of Europe. They chose Whiddy Island for a number of reasons–including its distance away from population centers–and built a tank farm and oil offloading station there. The Betelgeuse, launched in 1968, was part of this economic strategy.

A decade later, though, it was obvious Gulf had put its money on the wrong horse. The Suez Canal was open again, oil and shipping companies were changing their economic strategies and a spike in the price of oil was making it too costly to ship around the Cape of Good Hope in lumbering dinosaurs like the Betelgeuse, which was too large for the Suez Canal. The company that operated the vessel neglected the upkeep and repair of the ship and Gulf neglected the safety features of its shore facilities. It was a disaster in the making.

This rather disingenuous Gulf Oil TV commercial from the ’70s uses a folk song by the Clancy Brothers that was written about the oil facilities at Whiddy Island, Ireland.

On January 8, 1979, the disaster struck. The Betelgeuse was then being unloaded of its cargo of crude oil, but the unloading was being done haphazardly and shoddily, resulting in the ship floating unevenly. If the tanker was in good repair that might not have been a huge problem, but as it was the uneven unloading put stresses on the bottom of the ship’s hull. At 1:00 am she simply broke in half. The shock of the ship coming apart ruptured various empty ballast tanks, which were filled with fumes. They exploded, and Betelgeuse went up in a fireball. Now 114,000 tons of crude oil were burning.

The fire was so hot that marine firefighters couldn’t even approach the vessel, especially after the access jetty crumbled away into the sea. Most of their efforts were directed at making sure the tanks on-shore didn’t also go up. Whiddy Island itself was evacuated. The clouds of toxic gas and smoke surrounding the Betelgeuse were so thick that no one could approach her for almost two weeks after the disaster, long past the time when anyone aboard could have been rescued. Indeed the ship’s crew was wiped out to the last man, and seven workers at the on-shore terminal were also killed. Of 50 dead, only 27 bodies were recovered, some so badly burned they couldn’t be identified. The cost of the cleanup was $120 million.

whiddy island

A view from Whiddy Island, considerably more peaceful than on the morning of January 8, 1979.

Perhaps predictably, the Gulf Oil Company refused to accept responsibility for the disaster, at first disputing the findings of an Irish government report and then insisting that the fire must have started on-shore and then spread to the Betelgeuse. Gulf, the operator of the ship (Total S.A.) and their insurance companies settled all their claims out of court. Gulf closed down its Whiddy Island facility and never used it again, although the Irish government still stores its strategic oil reserve there.

The citizens and environment of Ireland were lucky that the Betelgeuse disaster–which Gulf Oil strategically calls the “Betelgeuse incident,” refusing to use the word “disaster”–wasn’t worse. Much of the oil burned up instead of spilling, which would have annihilated the marine ecosystems in the Whiddy Island area and probably left lingering human consequences, such as cancers, in its wake. The Betelgeuse catastrophe was not as bad as the horrific 1978 Amoco Cadiz wreck or the 1989 Exxon Valdez tragedy, but all such disasters should remind us of the dreadful costs of the industrialized world’s addiction to fossil fuels–costs that go far beyond the numbers clicking by in the readout at the gas pump.

Sorry, the photo of the burning oil tanker at the top of this article is not the Betelgeuse, as I could not find a photo of the disaster that was not copyrighted and reasonable for fair use. The photo of Whiddy Island is by Graham Horn and licensed/relicensed under Creative Commons (Attribution) license.