Fire in the Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster

A documentary about the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in which 167 people died has its world premiere in Edinburgh next week. Scotsman journalist Stephen McGinty, the producer and author of the book on which the film is based, has one hope – that it reveals the heroism and tragedy of that night

Fire in the Night is screening at Edinburgh International Film Festival. Picture: complimentary

I can still remember the day I became a film producer. It was one of those: “f*** it” moments and it came in the autumn of 2008. My book, Fire In The Night – about the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in which 167 people were killed 20 years earlier – had been published to fine, though regional, reviews. There were excellent notices north of the Border, but stony silence from the south.

It had, however, attracted the interest of an Irish film director, who bought me lunch at Rogano and asked to option the book with a view to making a feature film. My agent negotiated a fee for a two-year option. Then we waited. And waited. And waited but, sadly, the ‘Celtic Tiger’ had, in the intervening weeks, been strangled by its own tail and the deal was off.

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The foul-mouthed moment of epiphany came the day of my agent’s call. Instead of waiting for someone else to pick up the baton, I’d do it myself and I knew just the man to team up with. When researching the book I’d had the pleasure of meeting Paul Berriff, the director and cameraman who, on that terrible night, had been filming a series for ITV on the search and rescue helicopters based at Lossiemouth. Forty minutes after the initial explosion he was filming in the sky above the stricken oil rig, the radiant heat so strong the crew could feel it on their faces one mile out.

My pitch was that we team up to make a feature-length documentary, one worthy of a cinema release, before a network broadcast on television on the 25th anniversary of what remains the world’s worst offshore oil rig disaster. Together we set up our own production company, Berriff McGinty Films, and arranged a meeting with Alan Clements, director of content with STV, and made our pitch. He got it immediately, and with him on board as executive producer we secured some development funding from Creative Scotland.

And so began our grand tour of Britain as we set about tracking down survivors, rescuers, forgotten film footage and audio recordings from the rescue services. When the Wi-Fi in our office went down, we found ourselves working from the local McDonald’s, where the only available seats were in the children’s play area, so we found ourselves phoning Occidental, the American owners of Piper Alpha, while perched on tiny seats shaped like toadstools. They thanked us for “reaching out” to them, but declined to assist us.

However, many of the survivors to whom we spoke were only too happy to help. There was a general feeling that Piper Alpha was a forgotten tragedy, a disaster that happened 110 miles offshore, far beyond the horizon, one which was both out of sight and now, for the majority of the population, out of mind. Yet it had a unique and grim timeline that lent itself to a feature-length documentary.

It began at 10pm with a spark and an initial explosion, and by midnight the entire platform was destroyed, with the four-storey accommodation blocks toppled over and sinking to the bottom of the North Sea. It is not a glib “Hollywood pitch” to describe what took place in that two-hour window as a cross between The Towering Inferno and Titanic but a simple statement of fact.

Some survivors we approached more in hope than expectation – men such as Joe Meanan who had helped with the research for the book but had never spoken on camera. But now, more than two decades later, they agreed to participate. Fifty minutes into the disaster, when a gas line burst and a mushroom of flame engulfed the rig, Joe Meanan leapt off the helideck. It was 170 feet down and it took five seconds before he hit the water. As his foot left the metal, he thought: “What the f*** have I done?”

Then there was Roy Carey, whose life was saved by the memory of a promise he made to his youngest daughter. After diving through a fireball and into the water, he surfaced to find himself being cooked alive under a grill of flames. He would repeatedly sink under the water for relief then surface to agony.

Exhausted, he eventually decided it would be more painless to drown but as he sank down beneath the surface he remembered his daughter’s recent wedding and the promise he made to his youngest that she too could have such a day. It was a jolt that gave him the courage to endure.

For some, the interviews became a form of therapy. John Seabourn, the captain of the rescue craft Silver Pit, said that after the interview, the first time he had spoken, he had the best night’s sleep since the night of the disaster.

Once the research was complete we teamed up with Anthony Wonke, the Emmy-nominated director of Crack House USA, about a drugs gang brought down by a federal wiretap and The Battle of Marjah, about a platoon of marines in Afghanistan, to make the finished film for BBC Scotland.

A sentence such as that makes development, funding and securing a commission sound relatively simple but as the past four years have taught me, making a film is like doing a jigsaw with pieces of mercury. It was Anthony who had the most difficult task: directing the brief sequences of reconstruction that took the production team to the same water tank in Essex where they filmed The Bourne Supremacy and the controllable flames found at the National Fire College. In the wrong hands it could have been clumsy and clashed with the authenticity of the actual footage, but instead it makes for a deeper, more emotional film, one that, we hope, will echo out far beyond the anniversary.

Our goal was to make a film that peered through the flame and smoke and focus on the heroism and tragedy of that night, a film about memory and loss. In one of our original funding applications we were asked to explain how we would create work recognised as “creatively excellent”. I wrote the following: “This is impossible to answer honestly and anyone who does is playing to the gallery. What we can do is assure you that everyone involved in this project aspires to creative excellence and we shall have it fixed as a signpost on the long march to completion but only at the journey’s end and in the dark of the screening room will we know if we have achieved our goal.”

I hope we have; 167 men deserve no less.

• Fire in the Night: the Piper Alpha Disaster has its world premiere on 20 June at the Filmhouse, Edinburgh, as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and will then be shown at selected cinemas across Scotland. It will be broadcast on BBC 2 in July.