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Piper Alpha: the night the sea caught fire

The Piper Alpha Memorial at Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen.  30th anniversary is July 6.
Picture by Colin Rennie, Tuesday 29 May 2018
The Piper Alpha Memorial at Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen. 30th anniversary is July 6. Picture by Colin Rennie, Tuesday 29 May 2018

Nobody who was involved in Piper Alpha will ever forget the night the sea caught fire during the world’s worst offshore disaster.

Whether it was the families and friends of the 167 men who died or the emergency services who tended to the precious few people who were flown back to Aberdeen, or those who sailed into a vision from hell to carry out a desperate rescue mission, the tragic events which unfolded on the night of July 6 1988 are permanently ingrained in Scotland’s history.

The perfect storm

It started out as a calm summer’s night for those on the massive oil platform. But in the next few hours, a perfect storm of system failures and technical problems were directly responsible for a catastrophic conflagration.

At 9.55pm, a huge blast rocked the platform, gas leaked out at high pressure, and six alarms were triggered, but not before the installation was ablaze.

File photo dated 8 July 1988 of a fire burning on the North Sea oil rig Piper Alpha after an explosion that killed 167 people. Photo PA/PA Wire

The firewalls were not designed to withstand explosions and, even as the control room was abandoned after Mayday had been signalled by the radio operator, the situation dramatically escalated.

At the time disaster struck, there were 226 men on Piper. 165 of them were killed along with two others from the standby vessel Sandhaven.

Nothing had prepared them for the grievous scenario; and nothing could prevent the majority of the crew from paying the ultimate price.

It emerged later that no attempt was made to order an evacuation. Instead, the emergency procedures instructed staff to make their way to lifeboat stations, but the fire prevented them from doing so. Worse still, many of the victims moved to an area beneath the helicopter deck to await further instructions – which never came.

Piper Alpha on fire 1988. Picture by Dick Winchester

Nor did the helicopters, with wind, fire and dense black smoke preventing the aircraft from landing anywhere near the rig.

Several small vessels were involved in a frantic mission of mercy and their crews did their utmost to retrieve casualties and bodies from the water.

A vision of hell

But, as Charles Haffey, who was subsequently given the George Medal for his heroics on the Silver Pit, recalled: “It was a vision of hell, something straight from Dante’s Inferno. Whatever could go wrong that night did go wrong.”

Charles Haffey, Royal Navy man turned crewman of the Merchant Navy was one of the first responders to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 and won a George Medal for his bravery.

In other circumstances, the original fire might have gradually subsided or even been extinguished. Yet, befitting the chaos and confusion which surrounded the disaster, the nearby platforms, Tartan and Claymore, continued to pump oil and gas into the stricken installation until its pipeline finally ruptured in a second explosion.

Astonishingly, their operational crews did not believe they had the authority to shut off production, even though they could see that Piper Alpha was being inexorably consumed and destroyed by flames.

Heroes took part

In the end, the largest number of survivors – 37 – was recovered by the unstinting efforts of the Silver Pit. Some men had incredible escapes, while others thought they were safe and perished in the water.

Dennis Heddle, a north-east man with a passion for fishing and all matters nautical, was skippering the small boat Deventel when he was suddenly involved in the attempts to save the men on the rig.

I met him at his home in Rosehearty in 2018 and the matter-of-fact fashion in which he recounted what happened could not mask his horror.

Dennis Heddle was the skipper of one of the first recovery vessel to arrive at the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988. He is pictured at home in Rosehearty. Picture by Colin Rennie

He said: “From the moment we heard the news, the only thought was to get there as soon as we could. But, with hindsight, there was only so much we could do. By the time we reached Piper, the area was full of ships.

“It was utter chaos and though we worked hard to co-ordinate things, this was on a completely different scale from anything we could have imagined.

“There was no time to think about your own safety. We were all acting on instinct, running on adrenaline and doing the best we could.

“It sounds strange now, but thank goodness it was a nice night. If this had happened in January or February….well, there wouldn’t have been any survivors at all because we wouldn’t have got anywhere near the rig.

“Men were still on the platform, but some were jumping off it. They had the worst possible choice to make, but nothing was to be gained from staying where they were. And then, suddenly, it felt like the sea exploded and a wall of flames engulfed the whole area.

“You couldn’t have envisaged that such a vast structure could be reduced to a shell so quickly, but we just had to keep working as best we could.

“We picked up one guy, who wasn’t in great shape, and we had to MediVac him off. We heard of other boats finding survivors and suffering problems.

It was a towering inferno, absolutely the worst-case scenario, and as the hours passed, the realisation grew that there was nobody left to save.”

“It was a towering inferno, absolutely the worst-case scenario, and as the hours passed, the realisation grew that there was nobody left to save.

“But we couldn’t just stop and go home. As long as there was any hope of helping some poor soul, you had to keep searching.”

Growing anger

In the days ahead, even as people struggled to make sense of what had happened, a sense of anger grew at the conditions on the doomed rig.

All those failings in the industry contributed to the Piper Alpha disaster and, after it happened, there was a determined campaign by many people to make sure that it could never occur again.

Former MSP Lewis MacDonald was among those who witnessed the energy boom in Aberdeen and the city’s transformation in the previous decade, where pubs and nightclubs, casinos and restaurants vied for business.

<br />The Act of Remembrance Service at the Piper Alpha Memorial, Hazlehead Park on the 20th anniversary on July 6th, 2008. Pictured – UNITE Union Graham Tran (second left) and MP Lewis MacDonald. Picture by Kami Thomson

It was the modern equivalent of the Klondyke goldrush and many young men flocked to the north-east to make their fortune in the North Sea.

Mr Macdonald said: “Prior to Piper Alpha, there was a Wild West culture offshore. Producing more oil quickly seemed to be all that mattered, macho behaviour was the order of the day, health and safety concerns were suppressed and trade unions struggled to win recognition.

“All those failings in the industry contributed to the Piper Alpha disaster and, after it happened, there was a determined campaign by many people to make sure that it could never occur again.

All those failings in the industry contributed to the Piper Alpha disaster and there was a determined campaign by many people to make sure that it could never occur again.”

Lewis MacDonald

 

“The Piper Alpha Families and Survivors’ Association was set up in a matter of weeks to secure compensation for the bereaved, obtain justice for those who had died and put across the views of bereaved families and survivors at the Cullen Inquiry which followed.

“Offshore, many workers joined a trade union for the first time and demanded a voice in safety matters. So, while it was the greatest calamity in the history of the North Sea, it also marked the most important turning point.”

LORD Cullen with the model of the wreckage of Piper Alpha at the inquiry at AECC.

The Cullen Inquiry concluded in 1990 that only a complete change in offshore culture would protect the workforce in future and both trade unions and elected safety representatives became an integral part of working life.

Occidental, the company which owned the lost platform, went out of business, while every firm which continued to operate in the North Sea, signed up to achieve a step change in safety offshore.

Nothing, though, could lessen the global shock at the scale of the cataclysm and it seemed as if almost every family in the Granite City knew somebody who was involved in some capacity with Piper Alpha.

The blazing remains of the platform were eventually extinguished three weeks later by a team which was led by renowned firefighter Red Adair.

But the part of the structure which contained the galley where about 100 men had taken refuge was eventually recovered from the sea bed in late 1988 and the bodies of 87 were found inside.

A legacy of trauma

A memorial sculpture, showing three oil workers, was erected in the North Sea Memorial garden within Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen.

RGU Professor David Alexander won awards for his work in the field of trauma.

But, 10 years after the tragedy, Professor David Alexander, the director of the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research at Robert Gordon University, carried out a study into the psychological and social effects of Piper Alpha.

It found that more than 70% of those interviewed had reported psychological and behavioural symptoms of what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prof Alexander wrote in 1998: “Some of these lads are stronger than before Piper. They have learned things about themselves, changed their values and some relationships became stronger…a lot of heroism took place.”

Others found refuge in alcohol or drugs and, in several cases, their marriages collapsed. Counselling was not as common as it is nowadays and knowledge of PTSD was in its infancy.

Piper Alpha book of remembrance at Kirk of St Nicolas, Union Street. Picture by Kenny Elrick, 21 June 2018
The stained glass window above where the annual Piper Alpha service is held at Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting in Aberdeen. Picture by Scott Baxter

In Aberdeen, the Kirk of St Nicholas in Union Street has dedicated a chapel in memory of all those who died, containing a Book of Remembrance.

For many families across the region, who were touched by the events on July 6 and 7 1988, it is a place which offers a reminder of how their lives were torn apart, but also gives solace through the collective response to their suffering.

Even now, 34 years later, the very mention of these two short words Piper Alpha carries an indelible and haunting resonance.

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