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Piper Alpha: How lives were ripped apart by a perfect storm of failures

The Piper Alpha Memorial at Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen.
The Piper Alpha Memorial at Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen.

It is a date written indelibly into our history.

Just before 10pm on July 6 1988, a huge explosion 120 miles out to sea from Aberdeen ripped apart the tranquillity of a summer’s evening and with it the lives of 167 men. In the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of what remains the world’s worst offshore disaster, we will look back at what happened, pay tribute to the heroes, catch up with those who were touched in so many different ways and ask what has changed to prevent such a tragedy ever happening again.

Life was good for many youngsters in Aberdeen in the early 1980s.

The discovery of vast reserves of oil in the North Sea in the previous decade transformed the city away from industries such as fishing and farming and was a catalyst for rapid change in the north-east.

At a stroke, as a multitude of companies opened for business in the energy sector, disposable income soared, house prices surged and many people thrived.

Pubs and nightclubs, now all long gone, vied for business. There was Sir Laffalot’s on Shiprow – “Go Go dancers, Fri, Sat, Sun”, Radar’s on Belmont Street – “Open 7 Days a Week Til Midnight” – and Sweeepers on Hadden Street, with Aberdeen football star, Willie Miller, prominent at the opening.

‘Producing more oil more quickly seemed to be all that mattered’

And yet, while the oil boom brought riches for some, there were others who felt that the rapid expansion was built on a culture of profits before people and silver before safety.

Or, as north-east Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald put it: “Prior to the Piper Alpha disaster, there was a Wild West culture offshore.

“Producing more oil more 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.”

Fire rages on the Piper Alpha platform on July 6 1988.

In the mid-1970s, such views were not commonly heard.

On the contrary, when Piper Alpha, the giant platform operated by Occidental Petroleum, sprung to life in 1976, it was hailed as the latest chapter in a burgeoning success story.

Oil production commenced at the platform at about 250,000 barrels a day and later rose to 300,000 barrels.

Well paid, but lives were at risk

Very little thought had gone into the question of what might happen if an accident happened far out in the sea, let alone if the combustible fuels created a vast explosion. The Towering Inferno was only a movie, wasn’t it?

As one union official said: “The men were being well paid, but they were working in conditions that put their lives at risk. And if they complained about it, they weren’t asked back.”

By 1988, production had declined on the installation to 125,000 barrels a day. But Occidental continued to plough ahead with major construction, maintenance and upgrade works.

Despite the complex schedule, and fears expressed by trade unions, the firm made the decision to continue operating the platform and not shut it down, as was previously planned.

Perfect storm

And that perfect storm of system failures and technical problems was directly responsible for the terrible events that happened on July 6 1988.

At 9.55pm, on a clear and balmy summer evening, an explosion rocked the platform, gas leaked out at high pressure and six gas alarms were triggered, but not before disaster had been sparked.

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 fire in the night proved lethal.

167 lives lost in Piper Alpha disaster

At the time the conflagration occurred, there were 226 people on Piper. By the time that the awful events had concluded, there were 165 fatalities, with two others killed from the standby vessel Sandhaven.

No attempt was made to use loudspeakers or order an evacuation. The emergency procedures instructed staff to make their way to lifeboat stations, but the fire prevented them from doing so.

Instead, many of the men obeyed orders from on high and moved to an area beneath the helicopter deck to await further instructions, which never came.

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

As the crisis mounted, two men donned protective gear and attempted to reach the diesel pumping machinery below decks to activate the firefighting system. They were never seen again.

By 10.30pm, the Tharos, a large, semi-submersible firefighting, rescue and accommodation vessel drew alongside Piper Alpha.

‘A vision of hell’

It was accompanied by several small boats, whose crews did their utmost to retrieve casualties and bodies from the water.

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

In other circumstances, the original fire might have gradually diminished or been extinguished.

Yet, in this instance, the nearby platforms, Tartan and Claymore, continued to pump gas and oil into Piper Alpha until its pipeline finally ruptured in a second explosion.

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

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

As Lewis Macdonald added: “It was the greatest calamity in the history of the North Sea oil industry, and it also marked the most important turning point.

Fight for justice

“All those failings in the offshore oil and gas industry contributed to the Piper Alpha disaster, and after it happened there was a determined campaign to make sure it could not happen again.

“The Piper Alpha Families and Survivors’ Association was set up in a matter of weeks to secure compensation for the bereaved, to obtain justice for those who had died and to 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 on safety matters.

“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 part of the picture of working life offshore.

“Occidental went out of business, while every company which continued to operate in the North Sea signed up to achieving a step change in safety offshore.”

Nothing, though, could lessen the global shock at the scale of the cataclysm.

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

From grief to anger

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

In the aftermath, grief turned to anger and a determination to ensure safety measures were stepped up.

A memorial sculpture, showing three oil workers, was erected in the Rose Garden, within Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen.

And, 10 years after the disaster, Professor David Alexander, 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.

More than 70% of those interviewed reported psychological and behavioural symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Prof Alexander wrote: “Some of these lads are stronger than before Piper. They’ve learned things about themselves, changed their values, and some relationships became stronger.

“People realised they have strengths they didn’t know they had. A lot of heroism took place.”

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 tragedy, it is a place that offers both a reminder of how their lives were torn apart and offers solace through the collective response to their suffering.

Most knew somebody who had worked on or been associated at some point with Piper Alpha. And even now, almost 30 years later, the words carry an indelible resonance.

See our timeline of how the events of the night unfolded 

To follow our special Piper Alpha coverage on the 30th anniversary, click here