‘We have all endured the same tragedy’: remembering the Whiddy Island disaster

Loved ones gather in Bantry graveyard 40 years after oil tanker ‘Betelgeuse’ exploded

Relatives of victims arrive to the ‘Betelgeuse’ Disaster 40th Anniversay Commemoration in the  Abbey Cemetary, Bantry, Co Cork Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Relatives of victims arrive to the ‘Betelgeuse’ Disaster 40th Anniversay Commemoration in the Abbey Cemetary, Bantry, Co Cork Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

French widow, Ginette Ravelu lost her husband, Marcel when the Betelgeuse oil tanker exploded in flames in Bantry Bay in the early hours of January 8th, 1979, killing 51, including seven Irish.

Having broken her hip in a fall on Christmas Eve, Ms Ravelu was unable to join hundreds at the Betelgeuse monument in the Abbey Graveyard to remember, four decades on.

However, her words rang out, courtesy of former French consul in Cork, Francoise Letellier: “We are the Betelgeuse family in spite of the language difference – we have all endured the same tragedy.”

It is clear to me that a deep bond has been forged between the Irish and French families

“Forty years have gone by since that terrible night when our lives were throwing into turmoil and horror,” her speech read. “Despite all the years, we cannot forget.” Several heads nodded in sad agreement, tears close.

The bodies of 23 of the 42-strong crew of the Total SA-owned Betelgeuse were never recovered, their remains lost in the deep waters of Bantry Bay, where the Irish Naval Service ship, LE James Joyce lay moored in respectful silence.

Travelling relatives

Siblings, Maiwenne (24), Lena (21) and Glenn (28) Dorso, among 42 French relatives to travel, had come to honour their grandfather, Gaston Dorso. For them, Maiwenne explained, it had been a deeply moving pilgrimage.

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Whiddy Island disaster - 40 years on VIEW NOW

“We came here for the 30th and the 25th anniversaries but for us, it is important because our father, Frederic died 15 years, so we are here today to remember him and remember our grandfather, who was a machinist on the ship.

“Our father was 24 when he lost his father but he never spoke much to us about the tragedy – I wouldn’t say it was a kind of taboo but he didn’t talk about it,” he went on.

Thibaud Spitzbarth had travelled, too, along with his wife, Sother and young children, Gabrielle (2) and three-month-old Victor: “First of all it is a way for me to remember my father, Jean - I was just six when he died.

The wreck of the ‘Betelgeuse’ after the explosion at the Gulf Oil terminal at Whiddy Island, Bantry on January 9th, 1979 Photograph: Paddy Whelan/THE IRISH TIMES
The wreck of the ‘Betelgeuse’ after the explosion at the Gulf Oil terminal at Whiddy Island, Bantry on January 9th, 1979 Photograph: Paddy Whelan/THE IRISH TIMES

“He was a radio operator on board the Betelgeuse and because we lived in Strasbourg and I was not from a maritime family, I was protected from the detail of the tragedy when I was growing up,” said Mr Spitzbarth.

Protected growing up by his mother, Charlotte, he had felt compelled to come: “I now have two kids so it is important for us as a family and for them to come, Even though they are too young, perhaps they will recall it in later years.”

French Ambassador, Stephane Crouzat paid tribute to the people of Bantry, Cork and Ireland for the warm welcome extended to the French families who travelled to remember their loved ones.

Guard of honour

Mayor of Co Cork, Cllr Patrick Gerard Murphy from the Beara Peninsula was just eight when the Betelgeuse exploded, remembering a warm glow in the sky that night without realising the tragedy that lay below.

“The Whiddy Disaster is ingrained in the psyche of Bantry. Everyone in Bantry recognises the significance of this tragedy and the impact it had on the families who lost their loved ones and it is clear to me that a deep bond has been forged between the Irish and French families.”

Bishop of Cork and Ross, Dr John Buckley was among the concelebrants, along with Canon Martin O’Driscoll at the memorial mass at St Finbarr’s Church, attended also by the Rev Paul Willoughby of the Church of Ireland and David Ross representing the Bantry Christian Community.

Following the wreath-laying ceremony, where the Naval Service provided a guard of honour, the relatives were taken out by boat to the Whiddy Island jetty to visit the spot where their loved ones had died.