A Donegal oil-worker has written a remarkable book about surviving an oil rig disaster which claimed the lives of 50 people.
Brian McGee has spent the past eight years writing the book, Living with the Whiddy Disaster, which was officially launched in Cork last night.
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.
He moved 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.
He told the Irish Times ““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.”
In his book McGee graphically describes the horror that unfolded as he and fellow pump man, the late Johnny Downey, along with others, battled to contain the fire as it spread from the tanker to the jetty and threatened to ignite huge storage tanks on the island.
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.”