Circumstances of the accident
On 8 January 1979, the oil tanker the Betelgeuse was unloading her cargo, composed of 74,000 tonnes of Arabian heavy crude oil and 40,000 tonnes of Arabian light crude oil, at the Gulf Oil Terminal on Whiddy Island in Bantry Bay. The 40,000 tonnes of light were still onboard when the vessel exploded. The 42 crew members of the Betelgeuse and 7 workers from the oil terminal died in the explosion.
The Betelgeuse was split in two in the explosion. Both parts sank and the 40,000 tonnes of Arabian light crude oil were spilled. The explosion also set the vessel on fire. The jetty and the terminal were seriously damaged, but the 18 storage tanks on Whiddy Island were luckily unaffected.
The Cork County Council was in charge of organising clean-up operations. After the fire had gone out, heat, fumes and gas exhausts continued to prevent emergency crews from intervening. The oil could not begin to be pumped out until 2 weeks later. This potentially hazardous operation was undertaken very slowly and carefully. Booms were used to confine the oil and to protect the entrance of Glengariff Harbour. 35 tonnes of dispersants were sprayed over 12 days from planes on the oil contained in the booms. The oil was then recovered by skimmers. These operations kept the oil from reaching the shoreline.
The pollution affected the fishing industry. In some seriously affected areas, fishing was not possible and nets were damaged by the oil. Shellfish harvesting also suffered from this incident. Oiled seabirds were found.
This incident also prevented 3 very large crude carriers and 3 shuttle tankers from reaching Whiddy Island Terminal. They were redirected towards other harbours.
Salvage of the wreck
Salvage operations lasted for over a year. The Dutch firm L. Smit & Co removed the bow of the Betelgeuse from the jetty and towed it out to sea on 21 February in the Atlantic, where it was scuttled on 23 February.
The rest of the ship proved more difficult to deal with. On 30 August, the mid section was refloated and towed out to sea off Whiddy Island. The remains of the mid section were not set afloat before December, when they were towed to Bilbao and scrapped. The stern was eventually brought to the surface on 1st July 1980. It was then placed on a pontoon and towed to Valencia, where it was broken up.
Total claims for this incident amounted to 120 million US dollars. The owners of the jetty and terminal reached an out of court settlement with the French owners of the vessel for their damages. The West of England Protection & Indemnity Club paid for the oil pollution response costs and the removal of the wreck.
The crew, killed in the incident, were covered by the French merchant marine insurance scheme.
Date: 8 January 1979
Accident area: Bantry Bay
Cause of spill: explosion
Quantity transported: 114,000 tonnes
Type of pollutant: mixed Arabian crude oil
Quantity spilled: 40,000 tonnes
Ship type: oil tanker
Date built: 1968
Shipyard: Chantiers de l’Atlantique, Saint Nazaire
Length: 281.64 m
Width: 38 m
Draught: 20.40 m
Owner: Compagnie Navale des Pétroles
Last update: April 2006