Built in 1976, Piper Alpha was one of a number of oil and gas drilling rigs which pepper the North Sea. The work there was noisy, dirty and arduous, but also lucrative, so there were plenty who were willing to take it on.
There were more than two hundred men aboard the platform that July night, 120 miles out at sea, when it was abruptly rocked by an explosion. Caught between the flames and the sea, those men were thrown into a battle for survival.
I’m Kari Fay, and this is Great Disasters.
The Piper oilfield, 30km2 lying roughly halfway between Aberdeen in Scotland and Bergen in Norway, was discovered in the 1970s. Because of its location, building a platform that would be able to exploit it was a challenge. The Piper Alpha platform would stand in water 144 metres deep – that’s equivalent to a building of about 42 floors – and it would have to withstand the relentless force of the North Sea, where gale force winds and high waves would batter it from all directions.
In order to secure it to the sea floor, Piper Alpha had piles driven another 116 metres deep. And then, because men would have to work on the platform and they had to be kept safe from the wind and the waves too, the platform itself stood high above the water. The lowest deck was twenty metres above normal sea level, and the helideck at the top was 53 metres from the water. It was huge.
Charles Haffey, who worked aboard the platform’s stand-by boat, the Silver Pit, described it as:
“A vision of hell, I thought it was. The first time, I thought, “God, how could anybody work on one of these things?” Your ship seemed to be quite comfortable in comparison, you know, when you see these guys, these ants, walking around in their hard hats and their overalls. I had nothing but admiration for them.”
Although some workers had second thoughts once they got to the platform, most of the workers there felt secure. Dave Lambert, a scaffolder on the platform, told a BBC documentary later that,
“I always thought, if there was ever going to be an accident, it would be the transfer there and back in the helicopter. Because you do think about it – if anything ever happened. You think once you get on the platform, you’re safe for a fortnight.”
At its peak in 1979, Piper Alpha was producing 320,000 barrels of oil per day. But it was also at that point wasting another valuable commodity – natural gas. This was getting brought up anyway in the process of getting the oil, but was “flared” or burnt off as a by product. If it was brought to shore, too, there was more profit to be had, so the platform was retrofitted to add gas processing and export facilities too.
It also became part of a kind of highway for North Sea oil and gas; other platforms would pipe their products through to Piper Alpha, where it would then be pumped on into the main lines going ashore.
In 1988, Piper Alpha was undergoing a lot of construction work – maintenance and upgrades which had been planned by the operating company, Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Limited. However, even with major work going on, the platform continued operating.
On the 6th of July, Roy Carey, an instrument technician, was particularly busy, with all the work going on. “We had the gas modules shut down and we had to get this gas module back up and running as quickly as possible. We knew we had a few days to do it in. Or we thought we did, put it that way.
“The contract lads were knocking off from the gas module and they came down to the instrument shop and I was writing out the log to hand over, because the next day I was going off, and I said to them, “OK lads you can knock off,” and I sent them back up, not realising that I would never see them again. Another ten minutes and it could have made the world of difference, they might have survived. But you don’t know that at the time, you don’t realise that, you think you’re doing them a favour, a good turn. But it wasn’t, as it turned out.”
In the control room, operator Geoff Bollands was dealing with what he thought was a routine issue. “…what we call the condensate injection pump shut down. We called condensate what the layperson would call LPG, the stuff you buy in the blue bottles for your barbecue or your fire. So we needed to get it going quickly again, there wasn’t a panic about that because the condensate pumps, from an equipment point of view, tripped more than any other piece of equipment. It was just, oops, the condensate pump’s tripped.”
The platform had two condensate pumps, designated A and B. They were an essential part of transporting the condensate back to shore. Pump A wasn’t running at the time; it had been switched off. When Pump B stopped working, and couldn’t be restarted, the decision was made to switch pump A on.
“And the explosion came,” Bollands recalled. “Next second I’m fifteen foot away up the other end of the control room.
I can see myself in the control room now, I can see the smoke and the destruction at that end of the control room. My hearing was OK because I could hear some of the alarms going, and my hip was hurting, I struggled to walk a bit. The logical thing to do was then to get out of the smoke, which is what I did.”
Carey described the impact of the explosion “It wasn’t just a big bang, it was more of a karrump. And you felt it, right through the rig. I mean the instrument container was shaking like, and you knew it was something big.”
On his way towards his designated lifeboat, Carey met two of Bollands’ colleagues from the control room.
“…and they said to me, “No-go, Roy. The pumps have been blasted to pieces on the initial explosion. They’ve been taken out.” And he said “ the lifeboats have been smashed as well.” I went on down to the 68-foot level. As I’m walking along, you’re looking at a sprinkler system and all you’re seeing is drops of water. So the valve for the water had obviously opened, but there was no pressure, there was just the residual water dripping down from the sprinklers. So I knew then we were in serious trouble.”
A call for help had been sent out from Piper Alpha, but it had to be curtailed.
“Mayday mayday, we’re abandoning the radio room. We can’t talk any more we’re on fire, over!”
Although no call had been made to evacuate the platform, those who were close to the initial explosion knew that they had to get off Piper Alpha quickly. Bollands, still struggling with his injured hip, followed others to a rope, and climbed down to the rescue craft.
“The Silver Pit was this little boat…and we used to say,”Whatever happens on here, you’d never get me on there.” And I was really pleased to get on there.”
Carey had been preparing to climb down a rope used by the rig’s divers when he was hit by an explosion.
“I just went up on the ball of one foot, kicked off on the other, and spun round, and then, I didn’t know what was below me, I just knew I had to get out of that flame and most of the lads who I was standing with never made it. Three did that I know of, three of us that were in that area, but a good few of the lads never were seen again.
“You wonder why people would jump out of a 30, 40 storey block window when fire’s at their back. Well I know why now. Because I jumped as well… I looked up and you were under a grill. There was no other word to describe it. The top of my head started to cook. Steam was rising off the water and I was really in a bad way then. I thought, I’m going to die, either I’m going to be burnt to death or I’m going to drown. And I said I think I’d sooner drown, I said. I think that’s a more peaceful death. And so I plunged myself under the water and pedalled down under the water. And I thought I was maybe going under for the last time. It wasn’t as
if I had an option I just had a choice of the one way or the other.”
Thoughts of his family drove him to fight on.
“When I hit the surface again, and I was a bit further away from the rig, and the flames were curling up a little as you got further away from the rig, and the currents were taking me away as well, thank goodness, and I started swimming then. I noticed a body, quite close. He had a lifejacket on. I didn’t realise he was – I thought, it’s someone, I’ll go over and see how they are, like. And I swam over towards him and realised it was face down, still, and he was not moving at all. And I realised he was dead. And he had a life jacket which I didn’t have now. And I thought I can’t steal his life jacket I just couldn’t do that I couldn’t take it off him. I said what I’ll do is I’ll rest against it, rest against it on his back, and I didn’t want to lift him up to look who it was. Because you knew it could be someone you knew. And you didn’t want to you didn’t want to… you wanted to treat him with respect.”
After resting in this way, he gained enough strength to make it to a lifeboat, and to safety.
The Sandhaven, a supply vessel which was also equipped for safety work, was near enough to come to Piper’s aid. Captain Sean Ennis recalled,
“I could see smoke coming out of one end of the Piper. I knew it was a big problem then, because there was no lifeboats in the water. And I thought, well, men could be in the water. Even in that decent weather, not going to last long in the North Sea. So I launched the boat and off the lads went, and I followed them up.”
Twenty five minutes after the initial explosion, the gas line running to Piper Alpha from the Tartan platform had melted and ruptured. Between 15 and 30 tonnes of high pressure gas was released from this line every second, and it immediately caught fire.
The heat coming from this fire was so intense that Ennis, standing sheltered on the bridge of his ship, forty metres back from the bow and still a couple of hundred metres away from the rig, said he couldn’t bear it. His shipmates in the rescue boat ahead, however, were determined to help. They picked up some survivors, and were about to return to the Sandhaven when more were spotted climbing down. They turned back to get them, too, as Ennis watched.
“Oh it was a tremendous noise. Tremendous hiss and then bangs. And more explosions. And a susssususussss. Terrible noise. There must have been a big pocket of gas underneath the rig that was just sitting there and a spark must have got down to it and it just came down onto the water. The boat was there, and the boat was gone. I kept on calling, calling and calling on the radio, answer me, come on Brian, come on rescue one where are you? Come on answer me. Course there was no answer. Because they weren’t there.”
Half an hour after the Tartan gas line ruptured, a second gas line had followed suit. The already-raging fire was intensified by millions of cubic feet of gas, and flames were now shooting some ninety metres into the air. The Tharos, which was equipped with water cannons and was attempting to fight the fire, was forced to draw back.
From the Silver Pit, rescuer Charles Haffey witnessed a nightmare scenario.
“Fire in the night. You were hearing explosions. I can only describe it as a kind of like staccato you know bam, bam, bam. Maybe a couple of explosions and then a pause, another explosion, and then a bigger pause. But I mind to think at the time, we didnae have a choice here. We have to do – we have to get them on the rescue craft, we have to get them to safety. Men were screaming at the time, you know, you thought to yourself, but I have to do this. I really have to get you off this life raft and get you somewhere safe. At one time there was a massive double explosion above us and I honestly thought for me this was it, I thought to myself we’re going to die here, but like everything else, a split second later you’re still here, you’ve survived you’re here, y’know… The last time that we went to the rig the whole world seemed to be on fire. The noise was absolutely deafening, I could not begin… If you could imagine a blowtorch and then magnify the sound of that blowtorch maybe three, four thousand times, then you’ll get an idea of the noise. It was a cacophony of hell, that’s the only way I could describe it. I will never forget that noise.”
There were still men trapped by the inferno. Because they hadn’t been able to get to their lifeboats, they had instead gathered in the accommodation block, beneath the helideck, expecting rescue. The flames and the smoke, however, made it impossible for helicopters to reach them.
Mike Jennings was one of the men still on Piper Alpha.
“Even those shots I have seen on television since then, seeing the amount of flame there was then and the timescale, and I think to myself, i was still on that then, with all that fire going on, I often wonder how I ever managed to survive it. How any of us managed to survive being on the platform that long… The platform was beginning to break up. I could hear the gratings breaking and it was just a noise, like an eerie noise of things just creaking and grinding as if the welding was melting. Supports gave way and the area we were on actually tilted. Everyone just shook hands and you know we were sort of saying that was it, we were just shaking hands and saying this is the end.”
Still determined to find a way off the platform, Jennings made his way out onto the deck, and found that some pipes were creating a kind of bridge that it was possible to walk out on.
“I could see this guy at the end of the pipes, he’d been walking along the pipes and jumped off into the sea and I thought I’m going the same way that’s where I’ll go. The deck was very very hot, it was hot to the touch I could feel it through my feet. It definitely was melting. I had my life jacket on, I had my survival suit on, and I stood looking down and I couldn’t really see the sea, if there were any obstructions at all, but I did as you should always do before jumping in from any distance at all, hand across the life jacket, hand over your nose to stop the water going too far up and went to jump. But as I was doing that, someone from behind said that his feet were on fire and gave me a shove. I just remember going head over heels and thinking I’m getting away from the flames but I’m going to break my neck hitting the water now.”
Other men leaped from the helideck itself into the sea; 53 metres below.
At ten to midnight, the fire had consumed so much of the support structure that the platform simply couldn’t stand up any longer. From the rescue craft, the survivors heard and saw it collapse.
Carey said, “You could hear the rig in its death throes and it was oh, like a big moaning of metal as it sort of melted and was bending, and it wasn’t doing it silently… it’s a sound that’ll be with me forever. It was just the death of the platform.”
The accommodation block, where many of the men on board Piper Alpha were still gathered hoping for rescue, slid beneath the waves.
“I don’t know if they were still alive at that point but anyone who was remaining there , that was them right down to the bottom of the sea. And there was a lot of folks, a lot of lads I knew there.”
By quarter to one in the morning, all that remained of Piper Alpha was a blackened, burning stump; the remains of Module A. There had been 226 people on the platform. Only 61 had survived. 167 men, including two from the Sandhaven’s rescue attempt, had been killed.
Even as the remains of Piper Alpha still blazed – it would not be completely extinguished until three weeks later – the questions began; how had a tragedy of this scale been allowed to happen?
The ensuing investigation revealed that the maintenance work on Piper Alpha had played a significant role. Condensate Pump A had been switched off because its pressure safety valve had been removed for maintenance. In its place, an engineer had fitted a flat metal disc, called a disk cover or blind flange, as a temporary seal. This was only hand-tightened. At the end of the day shift, the engineer filled in the appropriate paperwork which said that Pump A shouldn’t be switched on.
However, it seems that nobody in the control room that evening was aware of this. They had been busy when the engineer came in at the end of his shift, so he had filed the paperwork without speaking to them about it.
When Pump B stopped working, they checked their files and found some other paperwork that said Pump A was due for a routine overhaul, but that this hadn’t been started.
Because the work that had been started was a separate job to the overhaul, on the safety valve rather than the pump itself, its paperwork was separate. It was also filed in a different place.
That meant the paperwork that would have warned them of the missing safety valve was not seen. The valve itself was not in a position where it could be seen easily, so nobody could simply spot the mistake. They thought Pump A was safe to use.
When it was switched on, the pressure blew the temporary seal, and exploded.
The design of the platform was another contributing factor. It had originally been designed for oil, not gas, so although it had firewalls which were designed to contain any fire in one location, they were not strong enough to withstand an explosion. The initial design had also separated vital areas like the control room from higher-risk areas. In the intervening years, however, more and more facilities had been packed onto the platform, and because space was restricted they had been packed in wherever they would fit.
The control room was so badly damaged in the initial explosion that any organised response to the disaster was practically impossible. They were unable to sound a general alarm, and the automated firefighting systems were not triggered. Two men from the control room – the two who Carey met on his way out – did attempt to make their way back in to start those systems. They did not survive.
Although the Tharos did attempt to use its water cannons to fight the fire, they were restricted in what they could do; at times they couldn’t even tell whether the water was reaching the fire. In addition, those cannons were so powerful that there was a danger the force of the water could injure or even kill those it was supposed to save if it hit them.
A third factor was a lack of coordination with the other platforms which were connected to Piper Alpha. If the pipes from the Tartan and Claymore platforms had been shut off immediately, the fire would not have had such an abundant source of fuel, and might have burned itself out. However, because the manager at the Claymore platform didn’t have permission from Occidental to shut down, it continued pumping oil to Piper Alpha until the second explosion. The gas pipeline from Tartan was initially ordered to continue pumping, because it would take several days to restart production if it was switched off – and this would have been costly.
The inquiry, chaired by the Scottish judge William Cullen, was highly critical of the platform’s operating company, Occidental. Their maintenance and safety procedures were considered to be inadequate. However, the company never faced any criminal charges.
In total, there were 106 recommendations for improved safety procedures in the North Sea gas and oil industry, from operating equipment procedures to information of platform personnel and emergency services. In 1992, the Offshore Installations (Safety Case) Regulations were adopted; operators like Occidental now had to present evidence that their systems were appropriate and that the risks involved were kept as low as reasonably practical.
For the survivors of Piper Alpha, that July night would remain with them forever. Ten years after the disaster, a study was carried out into the long-term psychological and social effects of the catastrophe, and it found that 70% of the survivors interviewed had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. 28 of the survivors reported that they’d had difficulty finding work after Piper Alpha; other offshore workers sometimes regarded them as bringers of bad luck. One of the survivors, a single man, reportedly took his own life in 1988, because he had felt so guilty over surviving when a close colleague with a wife and children at home had not.
However, the study’s author, Professor David Alexander, who had also led the psychiatric team which helped survivors at the time, wrote that, “Some of these lads are stronger than before Piper. They’ve learned things about themselves, changed their values, some relationships became stronger. People realised they have strengths they didn’t know they had. There was a lot of heroism took place.”
Piper Alpha remains the deadliest off-shore oil rig disaster in history; it’s hoped that the lessons learned will keep it that way.
Thanks for listening, and please do stay safe.