Feature Documentary (In Development)
At midnight on 7 January 1979, a French oil tanker Betelgeuse was off-loading its cargo at a jetty located just off rural Whiddy Island, in the southwest of Ireland. A fire started on the vessel, and for 25 minutes the crew and Gulf Oil staff, who were stranded on the jetty, called, and waited for rescue boats. A massive explosion, felt thirty miles away, ripped the vessel in two. All fifty people died instantly.
It ‘s Ireland’s worst Maritime disaster.
Forty-four years later, our documentary film tells an extraordinary story. An age-old tale about a small rural community welcoming an International Oil Company, with hopes and dreams of prosperity and employment. It’s a story about money, oil, human behaviour, trust, tragedy, lies and loss. It’s as relevant today as ever.
In 1967, International oil giant Gulf Oil ‘chose’ this tiny island off the West Cork coast to build their new European HQ, Oil Terminal, where the biggest ships on the planet would come to load and off-load their oil. Whiddy was home to a small number of farmers and fishermen. The arrival of Gulf Oil was welcomed with open arms by pretty much everyone, including the Irish government, as it employed a couple of thousand people to build, and brought huge prosperity to this remote area. West Cork had struck black gold! The biggest ships in the world were built in Japan just for the new Whiddy terminal.
Once opened in 1969, Gulf were left to their own devices, in how they ran the terminal. It became a tourist attraction with huge tankers queuing to off-load. After a few years, cracks began to appear. There were regular oil spills, the worst Ireland had seen, followed by cries from some politicians, saying a local harbour commission should be set up to monitor how Gulf were running their business. By the mid 1970’s, as the value of oil around the globe plummeted, there were numerous cutbacks at the terminal.
Then, disaster on that winter’s night in 1979. It changed everything. What followed was a lot of finger pointing between Gulf Oil, who ran the terminal, and Total the French owners of the Betelgeuse tanker. The Irish Government set up a tribunal and the outcomes were remarkable, with both Gulf and Total blamed for the disaster. There were headlines about lies and cover-up by Gulf employees who were working on the island that night. One, who was in charge, in a control room on the island, was accused of lying about times, and where he was when the fire started. The tribunal said, if he did his job correctly no one would have died. Many say he was told to lie by Gulf to protest the company. There was huge local fallout, never mind the catastrophe for 50 broken families in France and Ireland.
The arc of our narrative follows the relationship between Gulf Oil Corporation and the people of this corner of West Cork, from the mid 1960’s through to the tragedy in 1979. Using rich layers of archive, we interweave the story of this complex relationship between community, commerce and a giant multi-national, capturing the sense of excitement and wariness in the local area from the early days through to shocking despair, anger, and loss a decade later.
The heart of our story comes from individuals impacted by the disaster and now willing to talk – many for the first time. We meet wives and children in West Cork and Brittany, we talk to part-time firemen (like Adrian’s father, who was there that night) who had to deal with a nightmare scenario they could never have imagined; we talk to gulf employees who kept their heads down and never spoken publicly; we talk to Whiddy islanders who lived in fear for years after the tragedy; we talk to doctors, photographers, eye witnesses, journalists and locals; we also talk to people close to Gulf employee John Connolly, whose life was destroyed after the Tribunal. We attempt to tell, and then re-tell, and re-tell again, through people’s memories and statements, the stories around the events of that night and the complex relationship between Gulf Oil and Whiddy and how this enormous catastrophe unfolded.
What happened that night continues to cast a dark shadow over the families involved. Knowing their loved ones were shouting for help for twenty-five minutes while stranded on the offshore jetty is an unimaginable nightmare to live with. Why were they not rescued? Why did the safety boats not arrive? We focus in on those twenty-five minutes using eyewitness transcripts from people close to Whiddy Island who describe what they could see from afar over those crucial minutes. In the days, months, and years, following the disaster, devastated families and communities in West Cork and the Cote D’Amor region of Brittany (home to most of the French crew) have tried to come to terms with what happened to their fathers, sons, brothers, and mother. Lives were changed forever on that night. Twenty-three of the French bodies were never found.
As the years have passed, the world has moved on, companies at the terminal have come and gone, and people have pass away. Some locals would prefer not to open-up memories of those dark days while others feel it’s important that this complex story is finally told in a comprehensive way.
The development for this film began in early 2019 with research conversations with people involved like Michael Kingston, who was a young boy in 1979 when he lost his father Tim to the disaster. Michael is also the representative for many of the French families. Over the last three years we have met with numerous people connected to the night and we began some initial filming in August 2020 with Michael, his sister and his wonderful mother Mary. We also filmed with others who were in Bantry that January and travelled to the jetty with some firemen who were there that dreadful night. Many people are still looking for answers. .
Curious Dog Films © 2023.
In Development with Screen Ireland and RTÉ.