Thirty years ago ferocious blaze broke out on a North Sea oil and gas platform, tragically claiming the lives of most of those on board.
The Piper Alpha fire remains the world’s worst offshore oil disaster both in terms of the loss of life and its impact on the oil industry.
Of the 226 people on the platform, 165 died. Two crew members of a rescue vessel were also killed, taking the death toll to 167, while the total insured loss was £1.7 billion, making it one of the costliest manmade catastrophes ever.
The platform was about 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen and had been in operation for 12 years, since 1976. Initially it was an oil-only site but was later modified to add gas production, which compromised many of its original in-built safety mechanisms. It was the largest and oldest platform in the North Sea, responsible for about 10% of the region’s entire oil and gas production.
First reports of an explosion on the platform came in a ‘Maydy’ radio broadcast shortly after 10pm.A failure of communications over routine maintenance work meant a pump had been switched on despite a vital part having been removed. A work permit stating that the pump should not be turned on under any circumstances had been lost and the platform’s night shift workers were unaware of the order when they took over from the day shift.
In response to the Mayday call helicopters and rescue vessels were immediately dispatched to the Piper Alpha platform, but while still many miles away they reported seeing and “inferno” up to 350ft high and explosions which seemed to be tearing the ageing rig apart.
The initial explosion was not contained by the platform’s safety systems and as a series of other explosions followed, the fire quickly became out of control. Because the platform’s control centre was among the first parts to be destroyed and abandoned, there wasn’t even time to use the loudspeaker system to order an evacuation.
When high-pressure gas lines began melting and rupturing, adding fuel to the already massive blaze, the fate of the rig and most of those on board was sealed. The first rescue ship, “Tharos”, arrived at 10-30pm and began plucking survivors from the sea, some of them with serious burns. It tried in vain to use its firefighting equipment on the blaze, but couldn’t use its powerful water cannons for fear of hitting and killing the men still on board.
Most of those killed were suffocated from inhaling toxic fumes. Others chose to make the perilous 175ft leap from the structure into the cold North Sea and hope for rescue. With other vessels arriving, survivors were being pulled from the water, but at 10-50pm two crewmen aboard one of the rescue boats were killed in another huge explosion caused by a ruptured gas line.
Helicopters were also used to bring emergency medical teams to the rescue vessels and take seriously injured survivors to shore for urgent treatment. It was a tricky operation winching people on and off the rescue helicopters close to the blazing and exploding platform.
By 11-50pm, with critical support structures burned away, the platform began to collapse, making the rescue operation even more hazardous. Large parts of the structure began slipping into the sea, including the main accommodation block where up to 100 crewmen had sought shelter because it was fireproofed.
The rescue operation went on through the night until around 7-30pm the next morning, when it was clear there were no more people to be saved. A total of 61 people had survived, most by leaping from the platform, and several were seriously injured. Much of the original Piper Alpha platform had slipped into the sea, but what remained continued to burn for the next three weeks until it was finally extinguished by a team led by American oil fire specialist Red Adair.
Parts of the structure were later recovered from the seabed, but 30 bodies were never found. An official inquiry into the disaster established the cause and made 106 recommendations for changes to safety procedures on board other North Sea oil and gas platforms. A memorial sculpture showing three oil workers stands in Aberdeen’s Hazelhead Park.