Disaster survivor pens powerful account of horrific night on Whiddy Island

Oil terminal worker Brian McGee charts his long journey through shadow of trauma

Brian McGee: ’Debris rained down on Bantry.’ Photograph:  Tony McElhinney

Brian McGee: ’Debris rained down on Bantry.’ Photograph: Tony McElhinney

 

“I had no choice but to write the book because Whiddy would never leave me alone. It’s always been with me, but hopefully now with the book I can close the door, because in writing it I have done as much as I can do. I have told the truth, and maybe that will help others too.”

Brian McGee is talking about the book he has spent the last eight years working on, Living with the Whiddy Disaster, about the night 50 people died on Whiddy Island and the consequences for him as a survivor.

The last surviving member of the Gulf Oil crew working on the Whiddy Island terminal in Bantry Bay on January 8th, 1979, when the French tanker Betelgeuse went on fire at the terminal’s jetty, Brian (68) has lived with the trauma of the tragedy for 35 years.

A native of Co Donegal, he had come to west Cork in the 1960s to join his brother Charlie, working with a construction firm doing clearance work on Whiddy for Gulf Oil. He later joined the multinational company, working as an assistant pump operator.

He recalls how he travelled out to the island on a ferry at about 8pm on January 7th, 1979, with a number of workmates, including Charlie Brennan, Tim Kingston, Denis O’Leary, Neilly O’Shea, Jimmy O’Sullivan and Liam Shanahan, who were all to perish.

Storage tanks

Johnny Downey

Describing one of several explosions, he says: “Debris rained down on Bantry but luckily did not cause serious damage. Small pieces of shrapnel ended up in the Meelagh Valley six miles away.”

McGee catalogues the challenges that he and his workmates faced – a fire engine that would not start, fire hoses that had not been readied for use, a lack of breathing masks, levers missing on hydrants – as they sought to prevent the fire from engulfing the storage tanks.

“Battling the inferno for what seemed an eternity, I was filled with sheer dread, expecting at any moment that the tanks would overheat or be punctured and detonate, leaving Eleanor a widow and my little ones orphans.”

By the time McGee left Whiddy Island at 10am the next day 50 people were dead.

Critical of the company’s fire safety measures, McGee is equally forthright on the tribunal of inquiry, which he says scapegoated the terminal controller, the late John Connolly, while ignoring the State’s failure to ensure Gulf’s safety practices were up to standard.

But he is equally tough on himself as he charts his troubled journey to reach a sort of accommodation with himself.

Alcohol

“The Brian McGee that went to work that night never returned, and I’m not the same person. Writing the book has been a therapy for me, and has helped me, but I hope it helps others, too, because what happened that night should not be forgotten.”

Living with the Whiddy Disaster was launched last night at the Bantry Bookshop by local GP Dr Denis Cotter.