Obituary: Captain Sean Ennis, Seaman

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Born: 17 April, 1954, in Hull. Died: 18 February, 2015, in South Shields, aged 60.

When the Piper Alpha oil platform ignited in the first of a catastrophic series of fireballs on a summer night in 1988, Captain Sean Ennis was a few miles away, commanding a North Sea standby vessel.

Capt Ennis and his crew responded immediately to the mayday call on 6 July and headed towards the blazing installation.

His was one of the first ships on the scene and despite the fierce heat – one witness described the platform as going up like a Roman candle – he manoeuvred his vessel, the Sandhaven, as close as possible in a bid to pick up survivors.

The ship was equipped with a 21ft fast rescue craft which he also launched, with three of his crew on board, to go to the aid of those who had slithered down ropes, jumped for their lives or been catapulted into the sea by the massive force of the gas blasts.

As the boat sped towards the stricken rig, the unfolding ­disaster, which would claim the lives of 167 men, delivered both workers and rescuers into a kind of hell: flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air, the sea on fire.

Sailing directly under the platform, the rescue craft picked up four survivors and was just heading back to relative safety when the crew spotted two more men who had managed to descend down the structure to sea level.

Turning back towards the blaze, they took them aboard, but almost immediately their small vessel was engulfed by a huge explosion.

“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,” Capt Ennis said later. “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.”

Two of the crew, including Ennis’ best friend, were killed, along with all those they had rescued.

Only one man survived, Sandhaven deckhand Iain Letham, who was blown out of the boat and into the water, where his lifejacket melted on his back with the heat of the ­inferno. Capt Ennis, who had just witnessed the horror of men burning alive, knowing he had ordered his crew out into the erupting chaos, remained on site searching for other survivors until the early hours of the morning.

Days later, as the country was still trying to grasp the enormity of the disaster, he was asked to return to sea and was sent straight back to the scene.

Had he known that was his destination he would have requested another trip, but as it was, he simply had to get on with it.

The tragedy was the defining event in Capt Ennis’ career at sea but it did not define the man: ultimately he was able to take it in his stride, quietly and modestly, without fuss.

In 1990, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, awarded him a commendation for bravery for his actions on the night of the disaster, praising his “great determination in the face of extreme adversity”, and his efforts which, he said, were in the best traditions of the Merchant Navy.

Mr Letham received the George Medal which was also awarded posthumously to his crewmates, Brian Batchelor and Malcolm Storey, who lost their lives in the desperate rescue ­effort,

Capt Ennis, who spent 35 years at sea, was born in Hull and grew up, from the age of nine, in Hesslewood Orphanage, where he was sent with his three brothers after his parents’ marriage broke down.

His fascination with a ­maritime career began after he was enrolled at Hull’s Trinity House marine school, as a 13-year-old.

He first went to sea as a 17-year-old deck boy on trawlers and later studied for his seafarer certificates at Lowestoft College, becoming a third officer by the age of 21, a first officer at 24 and master four years later.

Capt Ennis would end his working life employed by a security firm after a back problem saw him confined to dry land, but at the height of his career, as a captain in the Merchant Navy, he sailed all over the world and by the fateful night of 6 July, 1988 was the master of the oilfield standby vessel Sandhaven. Twenty-five years later he took part in an award-winning documentary, Fire In The Night, marking the major anniversary of the disaster.

By that time he had retired from the sea, after spending a decade with North Star Shipping, but the events of a quarter of a century earlier remained as vivid in the memories of those who lived through Piper Alpha as on the night they occurred.

Neither the roar of the furnace that blazed around the workers nor the quiet courage of the men who saved them from it has been, or will be, ­forgotten.

Capt Ennis is survived by his second wife Lynda, his children Cheryl and Neil from his first marriage, stepchildren James and Gillian, his sister Angela and brothers Terry and David.