Piper Alpha: How we survived North Sea disaster

Piper Alpha fire in the night 6 July 1988: A series of explosions destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea. One hundred and sixty seven men died in the world's worst offshore oil disaster. An inquiry blamed the operator, Occidental, for poor maintenance and safety procedures. No charges were ever brought.
Black and white image of Piper Alpha before the fire 21:45 BST: One of two pumps located under the main body of the platform stopped working. Failure to re-start a pump within 30 minutes would have meant shutting down the entire platform - which accounted for about 10% of all North Sea oil and gas production.
Rig collapsing into water 21:55 BST: To prevent a costly shutdown the second pump was started but it was also faulty. The control room was unaware that earlier maintenance work on this pump had not been completed. Gas started to leak and then exploded. The platform had been built to withstand fire, but not explosions.
Burnt out rig two days after disaster 22:20 BST: A series of explosions followed as pipelines linking Piper Alpha to two other platforms ruptured and burst. Some of the crew jumped from the rig and survived, but most remained in the accommodation block waiting to be rescued. Shortly after, the platform collapsed into the sea.

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On 6 July 1988 a series of explosions ripped through the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea.

In the space of two hours, 167 men lost their lives.

It remains the world's worst offshore oil disaster.

Amazingly 61 men survived - some by jumping 175ft (53m) from the rig's helicopter deck into the sea.

A BBC documentary, Fire In The Night, tells their stories in their own words.

21:45 BST - 'It was a routine problem'

Geoff Bollands control room operator Geoff Bollands was a control room operator

Geoff Bollands was the control room operator on the night of 6 July 1988.

He says: "It's 25 years ago and I can remember it as if it was yesterday.

"We had a problem which was very much a routine problem which we had seen a lot of times before.

"What we called the condensate injection pump shut down.

"There wasn't a panic about that because the condensate pumps tripped more than any other piece of equipment.

"It was just, 'Oops, the condensate pump has tripped.'

"We accepted the alarm and then we got the gas alarms coming in.

"They just all came in together.

"All the alarms are coming in and every time I am trying to stop one, there's another one is coming in, so I couldn't stop the klaxon coming in.

"The explosion came.

"Next second, I'm 15ft away up the other end of the control room."

22:00 BST - 'Something is not right'

A gas pump which was being upgraded by the day shift was activated in error by the nightshift.

Charles Haffey - rescuer - Silver Pit Charles Haffey was on the rescue ship Silver Pit

The pump leaked gas and the first explosion occurred.

The fire spread rapidly and rescue boats were launched to evacuate the rig.

Charles Haffey was on board the Silver Pit rescue ship.

He says: "It was our job to man the fast rescue craft.

"When we launched for the first time, the fire was still very localised.

"What happened after that was one of the guys started running down the spider deck.

"The spider deck was the lowest deck on the rig.

"When we looked at his face we thought, 'This is a guy who really does not want to be there.'

"Then there were guys coming down the spider deck and most of them were dressed in their normal everyday gear and that's when we realised there is something really not right about this."

22:20 BST - 'There was a massive explosion'

The control room had been abandoned and then a major gas pipe from the nearby Tartan rig, which transported gas via Piper Alpha, melted, triggering a second explosion.

Up to 30 tonnes of gas per second fed the fireball.

Roy Carey, an instrument technician, says: "It wasn't just a big bang.

"It was more of a crump and you felt it through the rig.

"I mean the instrument container was shaking and you knew it was something big.

"I started making my way to the lifeboats and I met two guys from the control room with gas masks on 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 the lifeboats have been smashed as well.'

Find out more

The Piper Alpha rig prior to the disaster

Watch the whole programme, Fire In The Night, on Tuesday 9 July at 21:00 BST on BBC Two or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer

"We saw the divers had gone down a knotted rope and they left the rope there so we said, 'We'll follow them.'

"I had a life jacket on at the time.

"So I took it off and at this moment there was a massive explosion.

"I didn't know what was below me.

"I just knew I had to get out of that flame.

"Most of the lads who I was standing with never made it.

"Three dead that I know of.

"You wonder why people would jump out of a 30- or 40-storey block window when fire is at their back.

"Well, I know why now, because I jumped as well and I was very lucky to survive.

"When I hit the sea, I went very deep, but you could see above that the flames were lighting up the surface of the sea.

Roy Carey - instrument technician Roy Carey was an instrument technician

"So I started swimming up towards the surface.

"As I got towards the surface I was struggling then for breath.

"I didn't think I was going to make it.

"I started swimming a bit more and you start panicking a bit and finally I did hit the surface.

"I looked up and I was under a grill.

"There is no other way to describe it.

"The top of my head started to cook.

"Steam was rising off the water.

"I was really in a bad way, then I thought, 'I'm either going to burn to death or be drowned.'

"And I said, 'I think I'd sooner drown.

"'I think that's a more peaceful death.'

"And I plunged myself under the water and pedalled down under the water and thought I was maybe going under for the last time.

"I got an image of my younger daughter and I had promised to give her the same sort of wedding I had given my older daughter and this sort of clicked with me and I said, 'I have got to survive this.'

"I had to push through the barriers and make this happen.

"When I hit the surface again, I was 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.

"I started swimming then and I noticed a body quite close and he had a life jacket on.

"I thought I'll go over see how they are and I swam over towards him and realised he was face down and he was not moving at all and I realised he was dead.

PIPER ALPHA FACTS

Piper Alpha
  • Piper Alpha was constructed in Cherbourg but assembled at Ardersier, near Inverness, in 1975
  • It weighed 14,000 tonnes
  • It had a crew of 226 men
  • It was producing about 300,000 barrels of oil a day for Occidental Petroleum
  • The dead included two crewmen from the standby vessel Sandhaven

"He had a life jacket, which I didn't have now.

"I thought, 'I can't steal his life jacket.'

"I just couldn't do that.

"I thought, 'What I'll do is rest against him.'

"I didn't want to lift him up to find out who it was because it could be someone you knew and you wanted to treat him with respect.

"I leant on him and it gave me a little boost.

"Even now I feel a little guilty about doing that.

"My strength was building up again a bit and then I heard voices shouting me and it was lads who were clinging to a quarter of a lifeboat and so I let go of the body and swam over to the lifeboat.

"The Silver Pit went past us.

"It never saw us and then it came back the other way and it saw us then.

"They came up to us and dragged us on board.

"At that point we felt euphoric because we had survived.

"We had lived through it.

"You did not realise just how many people had gone in that night.

"We look back on that now and say that was day one in our new life.

"That's the way some of us look at it."

22:30 BST - 'We are not going to get off this'

Barry Goodwin Barry Goodwin was a rigger

The Tharos, a large rescue vessel equipped with huge firefighting hoses, drew near to Piper Alpha as most of those on the rig crammed into the canteen area, hoping to be rescued.

But some, including rigger Barry Goodwin, tried to find an escape route.

He says: "We were going up and down trying different doors.

"You would crack open a door and you would hear the rip of the fire.

"Every door we tried was the same. That's when all the lights went out.

"I thought, 'Crikey, we are not going to get off this.'

"This is when I bumped into my roommate Bill.

"I didn't recognise him.

"His face was black.

"We were making our way down different levels.

"Some parts you could get down the stairs.

"Other parts were on fire.

"We had to go along the beam, down a column, just sliding down here, jumping about there, down different areas.

"I'm used to walking along the beam, but Bill was a painting foreman.

"It wouldn't have been so easy for Billy.

"He came down like a good 'un.

"We got down a rope into the sea and it didn't feel cold at all.

"I think I could have swum in it all night after getting off that.

"Then Billy is starting to come down and I thought, 'He can't swim.'

"One minute he's in the water, the next he's up in the air like a bell-ringer going up and down.

"Then a fast rescue boat came round and hooked him in."

22:50 BST - 'What have I done?'

Joe Meanen Joe Meanen was a scaffolder

A second major pipeline exploded and 1,280 tonnes of gas ignited.

About 187 men were still on the rig, although many were already dead.

Scaffolder Joe Meanen says: "I decided to go up on to the heli-deck, but just as we got over to that side the major explosion - a 36in [91cm] pipe I think it was - fractured, and that's when the huge fireball engulfed the rig.

"I ran over to the north side of the platform.

"I had a look over, took my life jacket off, threw it in in front of me and I took two steps because there is safety netting round the heli-deck and jumped off.

"I just thought to myself, 'What have I done?'"

'I never saw him again'

Billy Clayton scaffolder Billy Clayton also worked as a scaffolder

Billy Clayton, another scaffolder, says: "I learned later on it was 175ft from the sea level.

"I walked across the heli-deck trying to work out what I was going to do and there was a fella just staring.

I said, 'You cannae stand there, mate, you have got to try to get off.'

"He just looked at us and never said anything.

"I walked away into the smoke and never saw him again.

"I was down on my knees.

"I think I was just trying to get a rest.

"I was speaking.

"I spoke to my wife [in my head], and I said, 'I'm not going to get stuck on here, I'm going to get off.'

"I was trying to think what to do next.

"I just stepped out off the heli-deck into the water."

23:20 BST - 'The deck was very hot'

A gas pipeline connecting Piper Alpha to the Claymore platform exploded.

Flight officer Mike Jennings says: "It must have been an hour I'd been going around the platform trying to get off.

"I was quite fatalistic by that time.

"The platform was beginning to break up.

"I could hear the gratings breaking.

"The noise was an eerie 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 we were saying that was it, 'This is the end.'

"I thought, 'I have got to do something, keep trying to get away from this.'

"I came out of the tool store and that's when I could see clear air.

"The crane operator had dropped pipes on to the deck and they were creating a bridge to walk along.

"I could see this guy at the end of these pipes.

"He'd been walking along these pipes and he jumped off into the sea, and I thought, 'I'm going the same way, that's where I'll go.'

"The deck was very hot.

"It was hot to the touch.

Mike Jennings Mike Jennings was a flight officer

"I could feel it through my feet.

"It definitely was melting.

"I had my life jacket on and I had my survival suit on and I stood looking down.

"I could not see if there were any obstructions, but I did as you should do - hand across your lifejacket, hand over your nose to stop the water going too far up - and went to jump.

"As I was doing that someone from behind said his feet were on fire and gave me a shove.

"In I went, head over heels, and I remember thinking, 'I'm getting away from the flames, but I'm going to break my neck hitting the water now.'

"I don't remember hitting the water, but I came up on my back, marvelling at how warm the water was.

"I came across a partition floating, and paddled away from the platform.

"I was thinking, 'Thank God I'm away from that inferno, away from the smoke.'

"I think the smoke was as bad as the heat.

"To be in clear air floating away from the platform was a great relief."

23:50 BST - 'I'll never forget that noise'

The module, which included the fireproofed accommodation block, slipped into the sea, followed by the largest part of the platform.

More than 80 men were trapped in the accommodation block.

Charles Haffey says: "As the night wore on, we were aware that we were finding less and less guys.

"The last time we went to the rig, the whole world seemed to be on fire.

"The noise was absolutely deafening.

"If you could imagine a blow-torch and magnify the sound of that blow-torch maybe 3,000 or 4,000 times and you will get an idea of the noise.

"It was a cacophony of hell.

"It is the only way I can describe it.

"I'll never forget that noise."

'The rig was in its death throes'

Roy Carey says: "You could hear the rig in its death throes.

"It was a big moaning of metal as it melted and it was bending.

"It was not doing it silently.

"It is a sound that will be with me forever.

"It was the death of the platform I was hearing.

"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."

'I'll never forget'

By 00:45 BST the entire rig platform was gone and all that remained was the shell of Module A.

Billy Barron, a painter, says: "I should never have stood and watched it.

"It's a thing I'll never forget."

Piper Alpha: Fire In The Night will be shown on BBC Two on 9 July at 21:00 BST.

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