The Whiddy Island disaster, also known as the Betelgeuse incident, occurred on 8 January 1979, around 1:00 am, when the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in Bantry Bay, at the offshore jetty for the oil terminal at Whiddy Island, Ireland. The explosion was attributed to the failure of the ship's structure during an operation to discharge its cargo of oil.
The explosion and resulting fire claimed the lives of 50 people (42 French nationals, seven Irish nationals, and one British national). Only 27 bodies were recovered. A further fatality occurred during the salvage operation with the loss of a Dutch diver.
On 24 November 1978, Betelgeuse left the Saudi port Ras Tanura in the Persian Gulf bound for Leixões, Portugal, with a full cargo of crude oil.
Before Ireland Betelgeuseput in at Vigo, Spain, to change some of her crew, and then sailed for Whiddy Island on 30 December 1978. During the passage, the vessel encountered heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay, and after reporting a leakage of oil, was instructed to head towards Brest, France, at reduced speed. However, the origin of the leak was discovered and stopped. The vessel proceeded on its original planned course, arriving in Bantry Bay on 4 January 1979.
By 8 pm on 6 January 1979, Betelgeuse had completed berthing at the offshore jetty in around 30 m (98 ft) of water. At 11:30 pm the same day, the vessel commenced discharging its 114,000 tonnes of mixed Arabian crude oil, which was expected to take about 36 hours. A number of the crew went ashore while this was in progress and the wife of one of the officers joined her husband on the vessel.
Around 1:00 am on Monday, 8 January, a rumbling or cracking noise was heard from the vessel, followed shortly by a huge explosion within its hull. The force of the explosion was seen to blow men from the jetty into the sea. Local residents reported seeing Betelgeuse engulfed in a ball of fire a few moments later. A series of further explosions followed, breaking the vessel in half. Much of the oil cargo still on board ignited and this generated temperatures estimated to exceed 1,000°C.
The concrete unloading jetty crumbled and firefighters, arriving on the scene from several neighbouring towns, were unable to get near the vessel. The firefighters concentrated their efforts on preventing the fire from spreading to the tanks of the storage farm and on containing the oil spillage. Local families living on the island fled for their lives
About 12 hours after the explosion, Betelgeuse sank at her moorings in 40 m (130 ft) of water (with her stern becoming completely submerged), which largely extinguished the main body of the fire. In spite of this, rescue workers were not able to approach the wreck (the bow of which was still above water) for two weeks due to clouds of toxic and flammable gas surrounding it. After two weeks, it was possible to start recovering bodies from the wreck and pumping off the remainder of the oil cargo that was still on board.