Piper Alpha – 1988

The discovery of North Sea oil and gas was a boon to Britain. Piper Alpha made a productive contribution. Originally an oil platform, it was later modified for gas production and consisted of four safety modifies separated by firewalls. In July 1988 Piper Alpha was producing ten per cent of the North Sea’s annual production. The revenue amounted to millions of daily dollars, but events soon proved that harvesting black gold from beneath the sea could exact a terrible price.

Two pumps on Piper Alpha compressed gas for onward transmission, but on July 6 Pump As safety valve was removed for maintenance and the open pipe sealed with a metal plug. At 21.45, Pump B failed. Supply had to be maintained at all costs and control room staff tragically failed to find the written notification that Pump A was out of commission. They started it at 21.55, immediately initiating a major leak through the temporary plug.

The gas ignited, causing an explosion that demolished safety walls built to withstand fire only. The control room was abandoned an events ran out of control. A second explosion rocked the platform at 22.20, intensifying the blaze. The Tharos rescue and firefighting vessel drew alongside at 20.30, only to be driven off as the second gas line went, creating a massive fireball.

The crew were either sheltering in the fireproofed accommodation block or leaping desperately into the sea, but the end was nigh. At 23.50 most of the platform collapsed into the sea, the rest soon following. As dawn broke, all that could be seen above the sullen swell was the skeletal remains of one module, its top still burning. Of 226 people on the platform that fatal night, fewer than a third survived the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.

When: July 6 1988

Where: North Sea

Death toll: 167 died (Including two crew members from a rescue boat); 59 survived,

You should know: The initial fire on Piper Alpha would have burnt out and the death toll been greatly reduced had the platform not been a staging point for pipelines from the Tartan and Claymore platforms. The cost of shutting these down was so great that both continued pumping into the heart of Piper-Alpha’s fire, creating an unstoppable conflagration that destroyed the rig and cost the lives of so many crew members.

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