The night the sea caught fire: Remembering Piper Alpha

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It is 20 years since 167 men lost their lives in the Piper Alpha disaster, a night those caught up in the tragedy will never forget. Here, some of the survivors and the bereaved revisit that terrible event and its aftermath.

IT'S a summer night in the North Sea, 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen. The sky above the oil platform is deep blue, the water around its steel legs calm. There's a diver carrying out maintenance work 50 feet below the surface, but by this hour, most of the 226 oil workers are in their quarters, a number of them listening to the ten o'clock news. No man tuned to his radio could possibly imagine that by the end of the bulletin there will be the first vague report of an explosion in this very place. For most people on dry land, their light and heat and cars and televisions powered by oil and gas from the North Sea, it is the first time they have heard the name Piper Alpha. But the disaster about to take place will be so terrible that, 20 years on, those two words remain seared into Scotland's collective memory.

For now, though, it is July 6, 1988, and on the mighty rig, 167 unknowing men – fathers, brothers, sons and lovers – are in the last moments of their lives.

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 700C, 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.

Piper Alpha produced more oil than any other platform in the North Sea, hundreds of thousands of barrels each day. Hardened roustabouts spoke of it nervously. There had been a number of fatalities and near-misses prior to the disaster. "Piper was synonymous with accidents," recalls Jake Molloy, head of the offshore trade union OILC. "People would say, 'Piper? Oh, you don't want to go there. That place is ready to go.'"

Yet, in their worst nightmares, no one could have imagined the scale of the disaster. There was an ignorance of just how destructive oil and gas could be. In those days the offshore industry was an environment in which a frontiersman attitude flourished, one that is now gone. "Piper brought home to everybody just what you were sitting on," says Molloy. "If somebody had said to me that a platform could fall into the sea, I'd have laughed at them. But the reality is you're sitting on a bomb."

On the day of the accident, Geoff Bollands, the production operator, was one of the first on Piper Alpha to realise something was wrong. A 40-year-old from the north-east of England, he had worked offshore for a decade. At 10pm he was in the control room, working the last shift of a fortnight stint and looking forward to getting home. But he had a serious problem to deal with first. One of the condensate pumps had switched off, and he was in the process of trying to get it started again when gas alarms began lighting up on his instrument panel. "Then the explosion came and knocked me about 20 feet," he recalls, sitting at his desk in the financial advice business he now runs in Middlesbrough.

Bollands hurt his right hip when he was thrown across the room, and gashed his left thumb so badly that it started spouting blood. "I was dazed and amazed by the magnitude of what had happened," Bollands says. "One minute we have a problem which is getting more and more severe, and the next minute the place is full of smoke, I'm injured, the fire panel and all of that end of the bulkhead have been smashed open, and the PA system isn't working."

He was frustrated that he couldn't get a message to the men off-shift in the accommodation area, and concerned that the platform alert hadn't gone off, even after he smashed the glass on the fire alarm. The fire pumps hadn't started either, having been switched from automatic to manual, so the flames were not being deluged with water as they ought to have been. The only thing to do was start the pumps by hand, but thick black smoke cut off the route to the start panel. Bollands' damaged hip prevented him from trying to get through, but his colleagues Bob Vernon and Robbie Carroll made an attempt. They were both killed.

Trapped in one corner of the platform, choking smoke cutting off his escape route in one direction, flames preventing him from fleeing in another, Bollands knew he wasn't going to be able to reach his designated lifeboat. He managed to escape Piper Alpha by climbing down a rope tied to a handrail from the 84-foot level; it wasn't easy, what with his injured hand and a lifejacket that kept snagging on the rope, but he made it. He was picked up by a small rescue boat and taken to the Silver Pit, a 50-year-old converted trawler that was the main support vessel for the platform.

Bollands was air-lifted from the Silver Pit at around 8am, but in the meantime he saw Piper Alpha burn. "It was like watching a disaster movie," he recalls. "There were lads falling off ropes, lads jumping over the side, there were lads on fire. I remember someone bouncing off the bumper to stop the boats hitting the platform."

John Sabourn, master of the Silver Pit, is now 71, retired and living in Western Australia. He recalls July 6, 1988 as one of the lowest moments of his life. Thirty-seven of the 59 survivors were pulled from the water by the trawler and its fast rescue craft. Sabourn remembers keeping his vessel close to the platform, looking for survivors in the water.

"Pieces of burning debris were shooting off like meteors," he says. "One piece shot straight towards the wheelhouse windows and I was sure it was meant for me. I remember thinking, 'God, if I come out of this alive I will never ever be frightened of dying again.' It missed us by feet."

Sabourn's other lasting memory of that night is seeing Eric Brianchon, a French technician who was the most badly burned of all the Piper Alpha injured. The Silver Pit's fast rescue craft had discovered Brianchon clinging to a piece of wreckage. He was air-lifted but later died in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. "When he was being sent up to the helicopter, he had to pass within two feet of me," says Sabourn. "His face is indescribable – the agony, the shock. I had a camera on the bridge, and if I had the time or initiative to take a photo it would surely have been a true picture of that night."

Professor David Alexander is director of the Aberdeen Centre for Trauma Research at Robert Gordon University. He led the psychiatric team that first responded to the Piper Alpha disaster, and spent a great deal of time caring for survivors in the burns unit of the Royal Infirmary. "It was a great advantage having the men together in the same ward," he says. "They supported each other. Black humour was acceptable, and they knew what was funny and not funny. It was a protective environment because everyone was in the same position, roughly. What I personally didn't think enough about was what it would be like when they got out. For some it was very hard indeed. Society is not very tolerant, sometimes, of disfigured people. I remember someone said to one of my patients, 'You shouldn't be out looking like that. It's awful.'"

As well as working in the burns unit, Professor Alexander arranged for survivors to attend his trauma clinic. They were suffering in a variety of ways. "The first thing is shock and denial. Then depression was common. This was effectively a family offshore. These men spent almost as much time with each other as with their own wives and children. Some felt very guilty because they had changed their shift. Guys were referred to me who hadn't been on Piper Alpha but should have been if they hadn't swapped with someone else. The other thing was flashbacks, ghastly re-enactments in which they saw, heard and sometimes even smelled the awful things they had experienced.

"Another very common difficulty was problems at home. The offshore worker has a very unusual life, working a fortnight on and a fortnight off, to which couples adjust. Suddenly you've got the man at home all the time, and he's no longer quite the same man as the lady married. He may be badly injured or emotionally damaged. Several marriages broke up.

"One other thing we saw was hyper-arousal. If you were to drop your pen behind a hyper-aroused person, they would just go into orbit. They are in a state of alert all the time. I remember one gentleman who was particularly hyper-aroused; just sitting with him made you feel tense because he couldn't calm down. It's nature's way of making sure you are ready for the next disaster. Some survivors used alcohol principally to dampen that."

Twenty years on, it's hard to say how many of the 59 survivors are still alive and what kind of mental shape they are in. There has been at least one suicide. Dick Common, an administrator for the divers, took his own life in 1994. A single man, he felt guilty that he had survived while a close colleague with a wife and children had perished. "I know without any doubt that he died because of Piper Alpha," a friend, Doreen Jennings, said of Common. "It never left his mind. It was like a nightmare that went on and on."

Finding survivors is difficult. There seems to have been a kind of Piper Alpha diaspora, people regarding the near-death experience and the financial compensation (Occidental, the operator of the platform, paid out 110 million to survivors and the families of victims) as catalysts for changing their lives and moving abroad. Just as the burning wreckage of the rig was scattered by the explosions, so the violent energy of Piper Alpha has thrust its survivors over huge distances. Many of those involved still find it too painful to talk about their experiences. For the survivors who agreed to be interviewed for this article, Piper Alpha remains an emotional subject, but one they are able to discuss. They regard themselves as having sustained no lasting psychological damage. In this they are fortunate.

Beginning in 1998, one month after the tenth anniversary, Alexander carried out a study into the long-term psychological effects of Piper Alpha. Thirty-six survivors agreed to give interviews or complete questionnaires. Of this group, almost all reported psychological problems. Twenty-eight said they had difficulty in finding employment following the disaster; one reason seems to be that some offshore employers regarded Piper Alpha survivors as Jonahs – bringers of bad luck who would not be welcome on other rigs and platforms. More than 70% of those interviewed said they had feelings of acute guilt; many felt they should not have survived when equally or more deserving workmates perished. Some of these people went on to play what Alexander describes as "Russian roulette" with their lives – driving fast and recklessly, taking up dangerous jobs or sports. "Unconsciously, they may be looking for ways to be punished for the fact that they came through relatively unharmed while their loved ones died."

It would be comforting to think that in the decade since Alexander's study, time has healed these emotional wounds. However, research shows that if problems persist for a number of years, further progress is unlikely in patients with marked post-traumatic conditions. The key is to learn to live with your nightmares and heartaches rather than hoping for a cure.

"A lot of the lads would say, 'I want to go back to normal. I want to go back to the way I was,'" Alexander recalls. "I used to take a tough line and say, 'You will not go back to what you were, but it doesn't mean you will not come through.' Some of these lads are stronger than before Piper. They've learned things about themselves, changed their values, some relationships became stronger. People realised they have strengths they didn't know they had. There was a lot of heroism took place."

IAN Gillanders, a 50-year-old pipefitter from Nairn, had been working late and was taking a shower at the time of the first explosion when the ceiling fell in. He made his way back to the cabin he shared with two Glaswegian electricians, Bob Ballantyne and Charlie MacLaughlin.

Of the three room-mates, Ballantyne, 45 at the time, would be the only one to survive the night. He eventually died from cancer in 2004, but his account of Piper Alpha forms part of Aberdeen University's 'Lives in the Oil Industry' archive of recorded interviews. Ballantyne is said by those who knew him to have been a warm, funny and gentle man, and it's possible to hear that personality in his voice as he talks, even when the subject is the night on which he lost so many friends.

Following the initial explosion, Ballantyne went to the cabin and found Gillanders organising socks and underwear, putting clean items back into a drawer. This mundane chore was clearly a response to the shock of what had happened. Ballantyne told him to stop, picked up his own copy of Voltaire's Candide, a satire on optimism which would never seem so apt, and along with MacLaughlin they left the room.

Ballantyne knew it should take the rescue helicopter only seven minutes to fly from the nearby Tharos fire-fighting platform, and as that amount of time had already passed, he figured it wasn't coming. The men decided, therefore, not to muster in the canteen, or galley, as protocol dictated they should, and instead strike out on their own.

Most of those who died on Piper Alpha did so in the galley, waiting for helicopters that were prevented from landing by flames and thick smoke. Around 100 men gathered there amid growing panic and chaos. After 15 minutes, the emergency lighting went off and the room was dark except for the glow from fires licking the windows. One survivor described the galley as being "like a pot sitting on top of a gas stove". It was so hot that people cooled themselves with water from the fish tanks or squeezed tomatoes over their skin.

When smoke began to smother the room, men were forced to crawl along the floor, seeking an inch or two of clear air, wet towels wrapped around their faces as protective masks. In late 1988, after this part of Piper Alpha was recovered from the sea bed, the bodies of 87 men were found inside.

Ballantyne and his workmates, looking for their own escape route, were driven down to the production level by fireballs coming at "the speed of lightning". Gillanders and other men headed for the west side of the platform, where the Tharos was, but Ballantyne chose not to follow. He could see the metal blowout preventers – large valves that encase an oil well at the surface – were actually liquefying. "I was absolutely terrified. It was like a surrealist painting. Like Salvador Dali's melting watch."

He decided to go east instead. It was as if he was watching himself in a dream and knew the right thing to do. Using a rope, he got down to the cellar deck level, 20 feet above the sea. Down there, he spotted MacLaughlin and Gillanders at the other end of the platform. Just then, a huge explosion rocked the platform and was felt up to a mile away. This was the rupture of the pipeline between Piper Alpha and the Frigg gas field. The swelling flames blew down to the sea and engulfed the fast rescue craft that had been launched by the standby vessel Sandhaven, killing two of the three crew, and all six men who had been recovered from the water.

"One second I was speaking to the coxswain in the rescue craft, the next second all I could see was a solid mass of flame that covered the boat," recalls Captain Sean Ennis, who was master of the Sandhaven and now captains an emergency rescue vehicle in the North Sea. "It looked like one of those napalm explosions you see in the movies, but for real, shocking and terrible. The heat was so intense I had to move my vessel 50 metres away. I spent the next 20 minutes just calling the rescue craft on the VHF, hoping for a reply but knowing in my heart and soul that I was not going to get one."

Ian Gillanders and Charlie MacLaughlin also died in the explosion. Ballantyne saw it happen before quickly climbing down into the water, where he was eventually picked up by a boat. "I didn't have any remorse when I saw my mates getting blown up and killed," he recalled. "I get quite upset about that. The thing that went through my head was, 'Thank goodness I didn't make it to them.' I was told that it's a survival instinct that kicks in. You don't feel love and concern. It's a shocking feeling. Terrible."

Gillanders had actually helped build Piper Alpha, working on the 143,000-tonne steel jacket, designed to withstand 95-foot waves and 117mph winds, at the Ardersier yard of J Ray McDermott, near his home. He was a great family man. He had a son, Evan, and daughter, Yvonne, who at the time of his death were in their early twenties, both students. Gillanders and his wife Ann had been talking about him packing in the offshore life; they were thinking about starting a business together. The idea was he'd be able to spend more time at home. Then one day he didn't come home at all.

Ann Gillanders, now 63, still lives in that same house, a modern bungalow on a quiet street in Nairn. She remembers very well the morning of July 7, 1988 her radio alarm waking her with dreadful news. "I was just sitting there on the bed and Yvonne came through and said, 'What rig's dad on, Mum?' I said, 'It's the Piper. But I want to be sure.'"

She managed to get through to her husband's employer, the Wood Group, who confirmed he was on Piper Alpha and gave her an emergency number for Occidental. One quirk of the offshore culture at that time was that many wives of oil workers had no idea on which platform their husbands were based, so thousands of women were trying to get through on the phone. It took Ann two hours, only to be told there was no news.

It became a question of getting through the day and watching every TV report; she found she was able to extract the information she wanted from the news, filtering out the crude horror of the platform's black and smouldering stump. At around 6pm a police officer confirmed that Ian was missing, presumed dead. Ann still felt in control. On some level she was in denial. Even days later, whenever the phone rang, part of her thought he might have been picked up by a fishing boat. But she was always aware that this was wishful thinking.

"Then I remember the phone rang and it was Bob Ballantyne. I was so glad he had got off OK, and I appreciated so much that he called. It couldn't have been easy. When someone has lost their husband and there you are still alive, some people might resent the fact. I've seen that happen."

Ballantyne was able to tell Ann what he knew of Ian's end. She was desperate for information, particularly as her husband's body had not been found. Sadly, it is still missing, one of 30 men never recovered. "It's very hard to explain what that's like, but it makes a difference," she says. "With a normal death you are either with them when they go or you can see the remains. You have a service, you go to the grave, or you cremate them and spread their ashes. But for me it seems unfinished somehow."

What made it particularly hard was that, as Ian had worked offshore, Ann was used to him being absent, so there were moments when her brain fooled itself that everything was normal and he was simply away at his work. Then, suddenly, the pain would return in a huge wave. She was helped a great deal, however, by a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the disaster. The SS Sunnivar ferry carried the families of the missing to the wreck buoy marking the spot where Piper Alpha had stood. "It was very emotional," says Ann, "but I felt that bit closer to Ian. There was this gap where he had been snatched away, and it helped to be where he had been in his last moments, and where his remains had their last resting place."

She also attended Lord Cullen's public inquiry into the disaster, at Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre. It wasn't easy listening to the painful testimony of survivors, and Ann was angered by a lot of what she heard about safety lapses, including the revelation that the Claymore and Tartan platforms did not immediately shut down production when it became apparent there was a fire on Piper Alpha; they continued to pump oil into the burning platform, fuelling the flames. Lord Cullen's report, published in November 1990, made 106 recommendations that have changed the safety culture of the oil industry. He was also extremely critical of Occidental; however, no criminal proceedings were ever brought against management.

Ann Gillanders came away from the Cullen Inquiry with so much anger at the corporate system that she felt she might be consumed. Instead, she put all that energy into her work, becoming a founder member of the Piper Alpha Survivors and Families Association.

One of the things the Association did was raise funds for a memorial to the dead men, commissioning a sculpture from the artist Sue Jane Taylor, who had visited Piper Alpha the year before the disaster and met some of those who later died. The bronze memorial in Aberdeen's Hazlehead Park shows three oil workers, larger than life-size, standing on a pink granite plinth engraved with the names of the dead. The figure facing north and pointing towards the ground was modelled on Bill Barron, a foreman painter, 53 at the time of the disaster, who escaped Piper Alpha by climbing down a rope from the 68-foot level and into the water; remarkably, he survived despite being unable to swim.

On July 6, 1991, before a large crowd of survivors and bereaved families, the Queen Mother unveiled the memorial. Seventeen years later, on a blazingly hot day in June, it offers a quiet, still sanctuary from rush-hour Aberdeen. The only noise is the sea-shore shush of distant traffic and the laughter of children carrying from a playpark. By the bottom of the plinth on the south side, next to where the ashes of an unidentified victim are interred, someone has left a small bunch of pink carnations.

There's no one here now, though. This part of the park is deserted. Bob Ballantyne used to visit and kneel at the base of the memorial, gazing up at the figures, reading the golden names of the lost. Ian Gillanders. Charles MacLaughlin. Robert Vernon. Robert Carroll. The poor burned Frenchman, Eric Brianchon. Their ages at death are given too. The youngest man to die was Mark Ashton, a 19-year-old trainee technician. The eldest, David Wiser, was 65, old enough to be Ashton's grandfather.

Ann Gillanders still comes here quite often, and regards it as a gravestone for a husband without a grave. Thanks to her work with the association, the anger is gone now, burned off like flared gas, but the sadness remains; at times, she can feel it in her stomach. Still, almost 20 years have passed, and like most other people whose lives have been scorched by Piper Alpha, she has managed to get through them.

"Somehow or other you do find the strength," she says. "But you don't forget. What happened on Piper is emblazoned on my mind." r

At 2pm on July 6 there will be a service of remembrance in the Kirk of St Nicholas Uniting, Union Street, Aberdeen