Whiddy Island

This incident in Ireland occurred in January 1979. The disaster occurred at a mooring island 400m from the shore of Whiddy island in Bantry Bay and which was not connected by a walkway to the shore. During unloading and ballasting of the tanker Betelgeuse which arrived loaded with 120,000 t of crude oil, the tanker split, oil was released, and a fire and explosions followed. No significant fire fighting action was taken, and no one on the ship or mooring jetty escaped. Bodies were found in the vicinity of the end of the mooring island that was badly fire damaged, sadly if they’d reached the other end which was not fire damaged they might have been safe.

So many years on it is not appropriate to make comment on the details of this. However, some general conclusions have broad continuing relevance.

Proper planning and training for emergency procedures is vital. Time may be limited, and the best use must be made of that time. Sometimes that may simply mean escape as fast as possible, and sometimes, operation of shut down or fire fighting systems should be carried out. Any system should not depend crucially on a single individual if an error on their behalf would prevent emergency actions by others.

The numbers of people at risk should be limited. 50 persons died during this disaster. All were on the ship or jetty. They did not all need to be there.

Equipment and processes that generate large volumes of an explosive gas air mixture are inherently undesirable. Oil tankers are routinely inerted now, but the same comment applies to fixed tanks onshore.

When flammable vapours must be released, they should be directed to a well ventilated safe place.

Plant modifications should take into account the original design intent. If this is not documented and understood, any change is liable to overlook or undermine safety.

My thanks to Gavin Sheridan for providing the link to a scan of the whole 500 page Costello report . Beware, this a 176MB file.