“I had never heard a city cry before. But in the days after Piper Alpha, Aberdeen wept”
Mike Gibb, Lest We Forget (2008).
Part of the Piper Alpha stained glass memorial window, designed by Jennifer Bayliss, at Ferryhill Parish Church, Aberdeen.
Late in the evening on 6 July 1988, a series of explosions rocked Piper Alpha, then one of the most productive offshore oil platforms in the world. 167 men were killed, including two crew on a rescue vessel. 61 more were able to escape, but many of them were burned.
It was the worst offshore disaster in the industry’s history.
In the early 1970s, an international oil crisis suddenly made it much more economical for companies to extract oil and gas from newly discovered deposits in the North Sea, including the Piper oilfield located just over 100 miles (nearly 200 km) off the coast of Aberdeen.
Over the following decades, this new industry brought wealth to Scotland as well as great risk for those working offshore. This was especially true for Piper Alpha. Changes were made to the platform in 1980 to allow it to extract gas as well as oil, but these made the rig and its workers much more vulnerable.
The first explosion on Piper Alpha was caused by a blockage which led to a build-up of gas. At this time, most of the 226 crew were in their quarters for the night. Within ten minutes, a mayday call was sent out and the platform’s control room was abandoned but sadly only 61 were able to escape, including seven divers who were undertaking routine maintenance work.
Military aircraft and civilian ships were dispatched to search for survivors in the water and fight the flames. These included the Tharos, a vessel outfitted as a firefighting and hospital platform, which was located close to Piper Alpha to support installation work on the platform. Two crew from the Sandhaven standby vessel lost their lives after a further explosion during the rescue operation. Thirty bodies were never recovered.
Many of the survivors received burns injuries as a result of oil fires on the water and were treated at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. The Cullen Inquiry, starting in November 1988 and lasting 180 days, was established to investigate the cause of the disaster. The ensuing report implemented more rigorous safety procedures for North Sea offshore installations.
Image reproduced under Open Government Licence.
The fire on Piper Alpha was finally extinguished three weeks later by a team led by the famous American oil well firefighter Red Adair (pictured below). Adair became well-known after leading the response to an oil well fire in Algeria in the early 1960s and, in 1968, was played by John Wayne in the film Hellfighters.
© PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
The Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association was established soon after the disaster to support the injured and bereaved, and push for greater safety in the offshore oil industry. The Association commissioned a memorial to the victims in Aberdeen’s Hazelwood Park.
Piper Alpha Memorial by Iain Cameron. CC BY 2.0.