We went to the heliport to wait for the survivors…but there were not that many helicopters coming back

Occidental Oil chairman Dr Armand Hammer speaks to the Press outside Aberdeen Royal Infirmary after the Piper Alpha oil disaster in July 1988.
Occidental Oil chairman Dr Armand Hammer speaks to the Press outside Aberdeen Royal Infirmary after the Piper Alpha oil disaster in July 1988.
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Piper Alpha: Journalists recall moment story broke

At the BBC studio at Beechgrove, reporter Christine Jardine was asked to check out information received that Piper Alpha platform was dealing with a major incident, with the young reporter phoning the coastguard to verify.

Christine Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West, was a reporter with the BBC in Aberdeen when the Piper Alpha story broke.

Christine Jardine, MP for Edinburgh West, was a reporter with the BBC in Aberdeen when the Piper Alpha story broke.

Ms Jardine, now a Liberal Democrat MP, said: “I distinctly remember putting down the phone and walking over to my colleague Jane Franchi and saying ‘they are abandoning Piper Alpha’.

“That was not a word that you heard – abandoning. We knew then it was bad, very bad.

“Things then happened very quickly. We went to the heliport to wait for the survivors but the awful thing was that there were not that many helicopters coming back.”

Over at the Press & Journal office in Lang Stracht, reporter Iain Lundy was also on shift when the story broke.

A survivor of the explosion  is carried on a stretcher into Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

A survivor of the explosion is carried on a stretcher into Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

Piece by piece, the unprecedented scale of the disaster started to emerge through the night, with the first photos from RAF search and rescue making their way to the office.

Lundy said: “When I wrote the final 5am edition story that night, the editor in charge asked if I would run the first paragraph past the RAF search and rescue people.

“I called them and my wording was ‘Up to 190 North Sea oilmen are feared dead in what is believed to be the world’s worst offshore disaster’.

“His reply was, ‘That’s about right, we’re talking major tragedy here.’

“I remember thinking ‘holy s***, that’s a lot of people’ and a shiver going up my spine.”

As information was fed back from the scene, Lundy was told helicopter pilots dispatched to the platform could see the flames 80 miles away and the rig was on fire “from top to bottom”.

Lundy stayed in the office until 5am and got home for a couple of hours sleep.

Waking up, it felt like everything had changed in a city which had been riding high on the good times created by North Sea oil and gas.

He said: “It honestly felt like a black cloud had come over Aberdeen, the place was in mourning.

“Putting aside the scale of the tragedy, it felt like this was the end of a dream to a certain extent.

“The oil industry had transformed Aberdeen from a traditional fishing and farming centre to the Oil Capital of Europe and it felt as though it had come to a horrible, fiery end.”

He recalled how dignitaries such as Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Dr Armand Hammer, the boss of Occidental, visited the city dressed in black.

“They came and went, and the city was left to deal with its grief,” he added.

Reporters at the Press & Journal were used to covering fatal car crashes, or fishing boat accidents or perhaps North Sea helicopter crashes, Lundy said.

“But nothing like 167 men dead. There was no time to really stop and take a break. At one point we were provided with beer and sandwiches which wouldn’t happen nowadays. I dealt with a lot of bereaved families and because the Press & Journal was the local paper and a reasonably well trusted paper, the families spoke to us.

“There was a certain empathy in that we all came from the same community.”

Funerals of those who died were attended by the paper and interviews with those who lived secured.

Lundy said: “I remember interviewing two survivors in particular. One guy told me he had jumped 150ft from the platform and I remember him saying that, when you hit water from that height, it’s not like water, more like concrete.

“He also said that when he found himself underwater and opened his eyes, all he could see was red everywhere because of the flames on the sea.

Two moments from the subsequent Cullen Inquiry, which Lundy covered daily, have stuck with the journalist, who now lives in the United States.

He said: “The footage of the second massive explosion which tore through the platform was shown many times at the inquiry. Every time it played the hall would fall silent and there was always the sound of tears.

“I also remember one particular survivor on the witness stand, supported by his girlfriend, who broke down in tears giving evidence and sobbed uncontrollably as he tried to tell his story. Even more sadly, he was found dead three years ago.”

Lundy said the Piper Alpha story followed him through his career and that he has got more emotional looking back on the tragedy as time goes on.

“I watched a video last year and found it difficult to watch. I recognised the survivors from the inquiry, they were still saying the same things and telling the same horrific stories and it made me think how their lives had been changed beyond repair that night.”

Jardine, 30 years after she made that phonecall to the coastguard, says she still feels the pain of Piper Alpha around the time of the anniversary.

She said: “As I was leaving the office at 7am in the morning, I remember the night producer saying to me as I headed for the door ‘You do know this story will go on. I don’t mean for a week of a year. I mean for decades’.

“And here we are, at the 30th anniversary.

“When it comes down to it, working on a story like Piper Alpha, reporters don’t care about their own career, they care deeply about telling people what happened.

“There was a fantastic generation of reporters working in Aberdeen at the time. I don’t know anyone on any publication who covered that story who didn’t come away with a different impression of the oil and gas industry.”

The MP, who represents Edinburgh West, added: “I do get a wee bit emotional in July. I know how Piper Alpha destroyed people’ lives. That is the impact that sticks with you.”