Piper Alpha Disaster

The Piper Alpha story can be told in flat statistics and lose none of its capacity to horrify.

The first explosion took place at around 10pm, when a cloud of gas condensate, leaking from a pump that was missing a safety valve, ignited. There were three further huge explosions – at 10.20pm, 10.50pm and 11.20pm, caused by ruptures of the pipelines connecting Piper Alpha to other platforms. The fire reached over 700¡C, hot enough to melt hard hats on to the heads of the men wearing them, and debris was thrown 800 metres into the air. There were only 59 survivors. A third of these made their escape from the platform within 20 minutes of the first explosion; half an hour after that, two-thirds were off. Five men jumped from the helideck, 175 feet above the sea. Three died on impact, their ribcages fracturing and damaging their lungs, heart and liver. Thirty bodies have never been recovered.

Just before 2200 BST on 6 July 1988, there was a massive gas leak followed by a fire and a series of explosions on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea.

The heat ruptured a gas pipeline from another platform causing another massive explosion and fireball that engulfed Piper Alpha.

All this took just 22 minutes. It was, and still is, the world's worst offshore disaster. Some 167 people died, 62 survived.

A series of events have been organised to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.

The nearby diving support vessel Lowland Cavalier reported the initial explosion just before 22:00, and the second explosion occurred twenty two minutes later. By the time civil and military rescue helicopters reached the scene, flames over one hundred metres in height and visible as far as one hundred km (120 km from the Maersk Highlander) away prevented safe approach. Tharos, a specialist firefighting vessel, was able to approach the platform, but could not prevent the rupture of the Tartan pipeline, about two hours after the start of the disaster, and it was forced to retreat due to the intensity of the fire. Two crewmen from the standby vessel MV Sandhaven Fast Rescue Craft were killed when an explosion on the platform destroyed their Fast Rescue Craft, the survivor Ian Letham later received the George Medal. The largest number of survivors (37 out of 59) were recovered by the Fast Rescue Craft MV Silver Pit; coxswain James Clark later received the George Medal. Others awarded the George Medal were Charles Haffey from Methil, Andrew Kiloh from Aberdeen, and James McNeill from Oban.

The blazing remains of the platform were eventually extinguished three weeks later by a team led by famed firefighter Red Adair, despite reported conditions of 80 mph (130 km/h) winds and 70-foot (20 m) waves.