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The services might be virtual, but the devastating impact of the Piper Alpha disaster was all too real

Thick smoke and flames still rise from the mangled remains of the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland in Aberdeen, July 8 1988.
Thick smoke and flames still rise from the mangled remains of the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland in Aberdeen, July 8 1988.

The commemorative services will have to be held on a virtual basis this year.

And there will not be the usual crowds of mourners paying silent tribute this weekend to the victims of Piper Alpha in front of the poignant memorial at Hazlehead Park.

Yet nothing will prevent people across the north-east from remembering the 167 men who perished, amid the inferno of a devastated oil installation, in a cauldron of flames more than 30 years ago.

Huge explosion

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 cast a veil over scores of men, their families and friends, and countless others in the region.

The tragedy was all the worse, because it happened when Aberdeen was enjoying an unprecedented energy boom which gradually, inexorably, galvanised the city.

Life was good for many youngsters who committed themselves to life on the rigs in the early 1980s.

The discovery of vast reserves of oil in the North Sea during the previous decade had 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 offshore sector, disposable income soared, house prices surged and many people thrived.

The Queen meeting Iain Letham, Capt Alistair Letty, Stanley MacLeod and Admiral John Redd, four men who had a key role in the Piper Alpha rescue operation, in Aberdeen on August 15 1988.

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 Sweepers on Hadden Street, with Aberdeen football star, Willie Miller, a prominent figure at the opening.

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.”

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.

One of the figures at the Piper Alpha memorial at Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen.

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 every day. And if they complained about it, they weren’t asked back.”

Production decline

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

And that perfect storm of system failures and technical problems was directly responsible for the terrible events that happened in 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.

Charles Haffey with his George Medal awarded for the rescues in the Piper Alpha disaster.

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.

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.

Lord Cullen conducted a detailed inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster.

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.

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.

Texan oil well firefighter Red Adair orchestrated the operation to ‘kill’ Piper Alpha’s burning wells.

As Mr 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.

“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 and would 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.

The Piper Alpha oil platform the day after the disaster.

“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.”

Global shock

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.

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.

Copies of the Press and Journal, reporting on the story of the Piper Alpha platform in the north sea.

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, who died earlier this year, wrote: “Some of these lads were stronger than before Piper. They learned a lot of things about themselves, changed their values, and some of their relationships became stronger.

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

The Piper Alpha tragedy killed 167 workers.

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, more than three decades later, the words carry an indelible resonance.