With Respect We Should Learn from Piper Alpha

A piece of paper, a wrench, some rubber matting and weak walls were all that stood between a normal night on a rig and an infamous disaster. With respect we should learn from Piper Alpha.

That at least was the bog basic findings of the Cullen Report into the Piper Alpha disaster. On 6th July 1988, 167 men lost their lives because of a series of small mistakes made on a North Sea rig,120 miles north east of Aberdeen. No-one knows for sure what was said and done and any narrative of the moments that led up to the first explosion will not be exact. Too many of those on the rig never got to tell the tale.

Though health and safety in offshore operations was there prior to that night, what is now known of the events kickstarted the modern safety orientated approach of today.

An hour long documentary about the disaster which concentrates on the human aspect rather then the technical.

In Brief, Why?

On the morning of the disaster two work permits were filled out.

One for routine maintenance of a gas (LPG) pump and the other for maintenance of the safety valve for the pump. Both of these were vital parts of regulating gas flow. It is important to note that the permits were filed separately as the pump and the valve were located in different areas of the rig.

Another similar set up was left to operate throughout and if that had worked through the night almost certainly nothing untoward would have happened.

Late in the afternoon the safety valve work was not finished. The last man on it placed a cap on the pipe and it is believed he tightened the nuts around it finger tight.

The night shift came on and everything went well until the operating pump and valve developed a fault, which despite serious effort could not be rectified.

It was essential for the gas to continue being pumped otherwise all electrical power to the platform would be lost. The worst consequence of that would be a shut down of operation and the huge cost that entailed.

Of course there was another pump which was idle. The permit was checked and on the face of it the work had been carried out so naturally it was primed with a small amount of gas ready to go online. In a different box, because it was in a different area, the unfinished work permit for the safety valve lay unread.

A gas alarm sounded in the control room, this was reported and crew asked to check. Unfortunately as they went to do so several more alarms went off. At around 22.00 hrs a violent explosion shook the rig.

When he recovered, the operator in the control room shut down all key valves but as smoke filled the room that was all he could do. The external alarm system had been destroyed and within minutes most of the key personnel who could have directed a response were also out of action. Two other control staff donned breathing apparatus and went back to try and start the fire control, neither was seen again.

Gas had escaped from the poorly secured cap on the unfinished safety valve and it ignited. It was seen by a boat crew emitting a blue flame from underneath the rig.  A short time later a bigger explosion followed. The gas explosion had ripped through the walls between two of the operation modules. The walls were only designed to take heat not the pressure of the blast. This was because originally Piper Alpha had only been intended to carry oil. The walls were fine for normal safety in an oil fire, less so for gas. Pieces of the wall ignited another gas line which in turn ignited oil which spilled due to back pressure.

billowing flame shoots out illuminating the rig like an inferno.
BBC photograph of the Piper Alpha rig. Words could not convey this adequately. Many photos were taken from ships and later used to try and discover what happened.

Burning oil ran from underneath the module and should have dropped into the sea. This meant it going through some steel grating which divers had covered with rubber matting. An ordinary enough thing to do as they were working from the area. It was one of those things, it was the timing that was vital rather than the action. In fairness to those divers the grating was not designed to ever see burning oil in the first place. Granted we know now, hindsight is a beautiful thing.

The oil hit and burned, slowed by the matting and above it was another pipe. This one was high pressure gas carrying a supply from another rig, Tartan.  The pipe exploded and essentially that was the end of Piper Alpha.

From then on the design of the rig was its downfall. Piper Alpha carried the oil and gas produced by not only Tartan but also by the Claymore. These continued the routine pumping of fuel into the Piper Alpha because initially they knew no better. In normal circumstances this would have been sent onward to be processed. As it was both sources fuelled the fires which at times shot hundreds of feet into the air.

Within the space of a murderous two hours the platform and all still on it fell into the sea. Only a single part, Module A, remained, burnt out and with no survivors.

The People

From start to finish pretty much everything that could go wrong had. The external alarm system had been destroyed and though workers followed procedure – what they could have never known was that the helideck, the main hope of rescue, was obscured by smoke and flames. No helicopter was going to get anywhere near it. Many remained in the accommodation block or the galley awaiting a rescue that could not make it.

Individuals and groups made their decisions to stay or chance escape. Some made it, some didn’t. All those who remained, largely in the galley, were killed.

Six who got to an escape boat were then killed by the Tartan gas explosion. Their craft having been stranded by debris two crew of the rescue launch also died.

For many the choice was to leap into the water, some from as high as 175 ft up. The explosions had destroyed the lifeboats, parts of which had fallen into the sea. One survivor tells of being trapped in a store only to be freed by a blast that opened the floor and the far wall. Three of his companions he never saw again.

Great help was given by several vessels and helicopters that made it to the scene and if they had not been on hand and willing to risk their lives far more souls would have been lost.

Another of the many tragic ironies was that one vessel, Tharos, a semi submersible support vessel with powerful seawater hoses that could be used to cool the structure also risked killing those attempting to get off the rig.

The Cullen Report

The Cullen Report pieced evidence together from eye witness accounts, photographic evidence taken from ships in the area and later what was raised from the sea. Incredibly even after being underwater for months the work permit was still intact.

The operator, Occidental, came in for a  lot of criticism but no prosecution. Many changes were made to future safety policies not least of which was the transferring of responsibility for safety from the Department for Energy to the Health and Safety Executive.

I write it here with the greatest of respect for those who were lost and those that survived. I don’t criticise with 20/20 vision, because of the lessons learned from their suffering many of us have not had to face what they did.

There is a saying that is very applicable to such situations and even though safety policies can be frustrating when they stand in the way of profit and the need to ‘get things done’ it sums up what happened that night.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Stay safe, god bless, regards,




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