6 July 1998. 120 miles off the coast of Scotland, towering nearly 300ft out of the North Sea, stands the colossal Piper Alpha oil rig. It’s at the hub of the North Sea’s most lucrative oil field, churning out some 120,000 barrels of oil per day. But when a lapse in communication during maintenance leads to a gas leak, catastrophe ensues. A ferocious fire triggers a series of gas pipeline ruptures and explosions, killing 167 men and destroying Piper Alpha. It is the world’s worst ever offshore disaster.
Piper Alpha was a North Sea oil production platform operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd. The platform began production in 1976, first as an oil platform and then later converted to gas production. An explosion and the resulting oil and gas fires destroyed it on 6 July 1988, killing 167 men, with only 61 survivors. The death toll includes two crewmen of a rescue vessel. Total insured loss was about £1.7 billion (US$3.4 billion). At the time of the disaster, the platform accounted for approximately ten percent of North Sea oil and gas production, and was the worst offshore oil disaster in terms of lives lost and industry impact.
The Kirk of St Nicholas in Union Street, Aberdeen has dedicated a chapel in memory of those who perished and there is a memorial sculpture in the Rose Garden of Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen. Thirty bodies were not recovered.
During the late ’70s, major works were carried out to enable the platform to meet UK Government gas export requirements and after this work had been completed, Piper Alpha was operating in what was known as phase 2 mode (operating with the Gas Conservation Module (GCM)) since the end of 1980 up until July 1988; phase 2 mode was its normal operating state. In the late ’80s, major construction, maintenance and upgrade works had been planned by Occidental and by July, 1988, the rig was already well into major work activities, with 6 major projects identified including the change-out of the GCM unit which meant that the rig had been put back into its initial phase 1 mode (i.e. operating without a GCM unit). Despite the complex and demanding work schedule, Occidental made the decision to continue operating the platform in phase 1 mode throughout this period and not to shut it down, as had been originally planned. The planning and controls that were put in place were thought to be adequate. Therefore Piper continued to export oil at just under 120,000 barrels per day and to export Tartan gas at some 33 MMSCFD (million standard cubic feet per day) during this demanding period.
Because the platform was completely destroyed, and many of those involved died, analysis of events can only suggest a possible chain of events based on known facts.
The Cullen Inquiry was set up in November 1988 to establish the cause of the disaster. In November 1990, it concluded that the initial condensate leak was the result of maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and related safety valve. The inquiry was critical of Piper Alpha’s operator, Occidental, which was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance and safety procedures. But no criminal charges were ever brought against it.
The second phase of the enquiry made 106 recommendations for changes to North Sea safety procedures, all of which were accepted by industry. Most significant of these recommendations was that the responsibility for enforcing safety in the North Sea should be moved from the Department of Energy to the Health and Safety Executive, as having both production and safety overseen by the same agency was a conflict of interest.
The disaster led to insurance claims of around US$ 1.4 billion, making it at that time the largest insured man-made catastrophe. The insurance and reinsurance claims process revealed serious weaknesses in the way insurers at Lloyd’s of London and elsewhere kept track of their potential exposures, and led to their procedures being reformed.
Survivors and relatives of those who died went on to form the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association, which campaigns on North Sea safety issues.
The wreck buoy marking the remains of the Piper is approximately 120 metres from the south-east corner of the replacement Piper Bravo platform. A lasting effect of the Piper Alpha disaster was the establishment of Britain’s first “post-Margaret Thatcher” trade union, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee.
A memorial sculpture, showing three oil workers, can be found in the Rose Garden within Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen. The sculptor is Sue Jane Taylor, the Scottish artist who had visited the Piper platform the previous year, and based much of her work around what she saw in and around the oil industry.
In 2008, to mark the 20th anniversary of the disaster, a stage play, Lest We Forget was commissioned by Aberdeen Performing Arts and written by playwright Mike Gibb . It was performed in Aberdeen, Scotland in the week leading up to the anniversary with the final performance on 6 July 2008, twenty years to the day.
Beginning in 1998, one month after the tenth anniversary, Professor David Alexander, director of the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research at Robert Gordon University carried out a study into the long-term psychological and social effects of Piper Alpha. He managed to find thirty-six survivors who agreed to give interviews or complete questionnaires. Almost all of this group reported psychological problems. More than 70% of those interviewed reported psychological and behavioral symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Twenty-eight said they had difficulty in finding employment following the disaster; it appears that some offshore employers regarded Piper Alpha survivors as Jonahs – bringers of bad luck, who would not be welcome on other rigs and platforms. The family members of the dead and survived victims also reported various psychological and social problems. Alexander also wrote that “some of these lads are stronger than before Piper. They’ve learned things about themselves, changed their values, some relationships became stronger. People realised they have strengths they didn’t know they had. There was a lot of heroism took place.”