Documentary on One: Fire in the Sky


Documentary maker Michael Lawless writes about his latest RTÉ Documentary On One production, Fire In The Sky.

I first learned about this story on Westminster Bridge, London, while speaking to Michael Kingston, a maritime lawyer from the village of Goleen in West Cork.

Michael reminded me of a near-death experience from the 2017 Westminster Bridge terrorist attack that he luckily escaped. While watching the Thames, he shared a story that decades later upsets and still grieves him.

Siblings Michael and Nora Kingston, whose father Tim Kingston died in the 1979 tragedy

It was the story of a tragedy that befell a larger community of West Cork residents. On Sunday January 8, 1979, Michael’s father Tim wrapped up his son’s 4th birthday celebrations at home with his beloved wife and three young children before heading to work.

Tim was a pollution control officer for Gulf Oil. They operated an oil tank farm from Whiddy Island to Bantry, Cork.

Garda files kept in the garage of Garda Pat Joy, one of the first to see the fire

The island has a history of military defense, after British authorities built fortified batteries on the island during the Napoleonic era and during the last months of World War I it became the site of a base American naval air force.

In 1966, Gulf Oil obtained permission to build 12 massive oil reservoirs on the island, each capable of holding over 80,000 tonnes of crude oil. On that fateful day, not only were Gulf workers on the island, but it was also home to a small population of 63 islanders.

Whiddy Island disaster survivor Brian McGee appears in Fire In The Sky
(Photo: Tony McElhinney)

Four days earlier, an oil tanker, a vessel carrying tons of Arabian crude oil from the Persian Gulf known as MV “Betelgeuse”, arrived at Bantry Bay.

He was never planned to come to Cork, but the weather was so bad in Sines, south of Lisbon, that the captain was ordered to unload him at Whiddy Island. The crew was French and 42 of them had spent Christmas at sea.

As night turned to morning, a fire broke out on the ship. There were 50 people on and near the ship, many still sleeping on the ship. A few minutes later, an explosion occurred and the sonorous sound could be heard across West Cork. This ship was now on fire and became a fight to escape.

Oil tanker MV “Betelgeuse” on fire (Pic: Tom Burke)

Reservation firefighters from all over Cork rushed to the scene of this disaster, but there was no land connection to the island, they had to bring in boats from Bantry Pier to bring the firefighters to the island .

In our Documentary on One: Fire in the Sky, we hear those who were there, and can remember the dramatic events of the night.

Coroner’s report of an unidentified body, recovered from the accident site

That night, 50 people would die. 42 French citizens, 7 Irish citizens and 1 British citizen. Later that year, the 51st person would die. A Dutch diver who participated in the recovery process of the vessel.

A tribunal of inquiry was established and the RTÉ reporter on the findings was none other than former president Mary McAleese. She remembers the atmosphere in Bantry and what happened during the night.

RTÉ Current affairs reporter Mary McAleese in 1979

To this day, families are still trying to establish the truth and continue to demand an apology from the state.

Michael Kingston, son of the late Tim Kingston, consultant to the United Nations International Maritime Organization and Special Advisor to the Council of Arctic States, is spearheading an application to the High Court on behalf of the Franco-Irish Association of Relatives and Friends of Betelgeuse to quash the verdicts of the coroners and open a new investigation with a view to classifying the deaths in the category of “unlawful homicides”.

Documentary on One: Fire In The Sky, RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday October 2 at 2 p.m. and replay Sunday October 3 at 6 p.m. – listen to more Documentary On One here.

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