Piper Alpha - the tragedy that changed so much for so many

The unprecedented human cost of the Piper Alpha disaster '“ and the struggle to comprehend its scale and cause '“ dominated the front pages for months following the tragedy in the North Sea.

In the very beginning, there was still hope for the crew as the rescue operation battled through the night to save oil workers on the stricken rig. Quickly, that hope disappeared with the new day bringing a sense of the devastation in the North Sea.

The “Death of Piper Alpha” was how The Scotsman reported the story as the likely death toll rose to 164 within just over 24 hours of the first explosion on the rig. As reporters gained access to survivors in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, the horrors of the night became brutally clear.

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The newspaper reported: “For almost an hour men were faced with the agonising life or death decision either to wait for rescue on the collapsing structure as it was torn apart by smaller explosions or to jump blindly into the sea and swim to safety.

Royal Air Force Air Load Master Bob Pountney helping a survivor as he arrives at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary after the explosion disaster on the North Sea oil production platform Piper Alpha.
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“Many did not even have that choice. They were trapped by the fire in their beds or in the recreation rooms of the maze of stairs and corridors in the accommodation area. In total darkness as the electricity failed, the windows began shattering in the intense heat and the oxygen was burned from the air.”

The following day, Grampian Police released a list of names and addresses of those who survived – and those still unaccounted for.

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Not a corner of Scotland remained untouched. From Tain to Buckie, Lossiemouth and Brechin to Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Glasgow and Wemyss Bay, losses were felt nationwide. Aberdeen and the surrounding shire was, of course, exceptionally damaged by events. Homes across the north of England too felt losses of fathers, sons, brothers and friends.

The safety record of the North Sea was quickly pulled into focus by the press. Experts speculated over the cause of the disaster and details of a previous explosion on Piper Alpha some four years earlier started to emerge.

The Scotsman newspaper's front page report of the Piper Alpha disaster on 8 July 1988. The accident, when an oil platform exploded, took place in the North Sea on 6 July.

Dignitaries filed into the stunned city to offer their condolences. Among them was Dr Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental oil company, who faced the press outside ARI to defend his company’s safety practices.

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Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher also visited casualties in several wards and pledged £1m to the disaster relief fund on the day that a full public inquiry into the tragedy was announced. Diana Princess of Wales was pictured at the bedside of survivor Michael Bradley during a tour of the hospital with Prince Charles.

Two weeks after the tragedy, The Scotsman, on 21 July 1988, covered a remembrance service at St Nicholas Kirk in Aberdeen. Around 2,000 people gathered inside with around the same number again lining the surrounding streets. Photos of the city’s people captured both the numb and the raw.

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The newspaper said: “In the city you could almost touch the sadness, grief and pain. Yesterday was a day when the price of North Sea Oil was advertised all too clearly on the faces of the families left behind.”

Smoke billowing from the burning wreckage of the Piper Alpha oil production platform.

Aberdeen, meanwhile, was a stunned city that was grappling for a way forward.

Reverend Alan Swinton, the chaplain to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, who guided families and survivors through the most painful days after the disaster, summed up the mood during the service, The Scotsman reported.

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“They said time will heal, but that’s a fortnight now, Lord, and it hasn’t healed at all. If anything, it’s worse,” the minister said.