Piper Alpha: 34 years on, we remember the 167 victims of this horrific disaster – Steve Cardownie

Thirty-four years ago today, an explosion occurred on the Piper Alpha oil platform, located approximately 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen in the North Sea.

Smoke rises from the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea (Picture: PA)
Smoke rises from the Piper Alpha oil production platform in the North Sea (Picture: PA)

One hundred and sixty-seven men lost their lives with only 61 managing to escape the inferno which engulfed the rig.

Much time has been spent in an effort to establish what went wrong and if the extensive loss of life could have been avoided.

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This particular platform was built for oil production and only took on the additional role of gas production after it was already in operation, so it was not designed to withstand the explosions that erupted with devastating effect.

There has been some debate about, whether or not there was sufficient time for a more effective evacuation but early orders to evacuate were not given because, as there were no blast walls included within the design of the platform, personnel with the authority to order such an evacuation were killed when the control room was blown apart by the first explosion.

This was compounded by the nearby platforms that were connected to Piper Alpha, Tartan and Claymore, still pumping gas and oil to the stricken rig until its pipeline ruptured in the heat produced by a second explosion. The operation crews on these rigs held the view that they did not have the appropriate authority to shut off production despite seeing that Piper Alpha was on fire.

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Later that night large parts of the rig disappeared under the sea with the part which contained the galley, where workers had taken refuge, being recovered by divers later that year. The bodies of 87 men were also found inside.

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The fire which continued to burn on the remains of the platform was only finally extinguished three weeks after it started by a team led by the firefighter Red Adair.

An inquiry was set up in November 1988 to establish what was the cause of the disaster, chaired by a Scottish judge, William Cullen, and after six months of proceedings it published its report in November 1990.

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It stated that an initial condensate leak was the result of maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and a related safety valve, which had been removed for routine maintenance.

Although critical of the rig’s operator, Occidental, which was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance and safety procedures, no criminal charges were ever brought against the company.

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However it did pay out a total of $180 million in compensation to victims’ families and survivors of the disaster. Another part of the report made 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures which led to the enactment of the Offshore Safety Act 1992.

A friend and footballing teammate of mine was working on Piper Alpha that fateful day. His goal-scoring exploits were only eclipsed by his infectious laugh and sense of humour. A scaffolder, Frankie Miller, was one of the 167 men who did not return home.

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Missed by his family and friends, a few glasses will be raised in his memory. Today of all days.