Obituary: David Foster, Coastguard officer who improved safety in aftermath of Piper Alpha disaster
David Foster, HM Coastguard oil and gas liaison officer and offshore training consultant. Born 20 April, 1938 in Oxford. Died 27 November, 2017 in Aberdeen, aged 79
David Foster had seen the world as a radio officer in the Merchant Navy and witnessed the results delivered by the might of the elements as a coastguard officer.
But nothing could prepare him for the night a series of explosions erupted on board a North Sea platform, triggering the world’s worst offshore disaster.
Foster, the coastguard district controller in charge of an area from Eyemouth up to Cape Wrath, was called out that awful evening to help co-ordinate the air and sea rescue of workers who, by some miracle, had managed to escape the inferno that had been the Piper Alpha platform.
The tragedy, on 6 July 1988, claimed the lives of 167 men. There were only 61 survivors: some had jumped as much as 175ft from the Occidental-operated platform’s helideck into the sea; several had climbed down ropes to the water; some had been thrown into the waves by the force of the blasts. Above and around them, the platform and the sea were ablaze.
One hundred miles away, Aberdeen awaited a fleet of rescue helicopters. Few arrived with survivors and the enormity of the disaster was encapsulated by one witness who said the installation went up “like a Roman candle”.
The accident had a profound effect on Foster but in the aftermath he realised he could try to do something to improve safety matters and, in particular, communications between the coastguard and oil companies.
Foster, who later served as oil and gas liaison officer, developed a framework linking offshore installations, company’s emergency response centres offshore and the coastguard service.
And, after giving evidence to the Cullen Inquiry into the disaster, he gave presentations to the Health and Safety Executive, ran 70 training exercises in one year alone and undertook field visits, helping to put many of the inquiry’s recommendations into place.
Born in Oxford, where his father edited the Oxford Times’ sports section and his mother ran a guest house, he had an affinity with the water as a child, sailing on the river Thame as a schoolboy. Keen on joining the navy, he was encouraged by his careers master at Magdalen College School and went on to study radio and maritime engineering at Southampton University before going to sea. He initially served on Ministry of Defence troopships, sailing on the last operational troopship the SS Nevasa, to places including Malta, Singapore and Sri Lanka.
After spending eight years with the Merchant Navy, during which time he married his wife Dee, he returned onshore to work for Marconi Marine in Falmouth. Keen to maintain his links with the sea he joined the auxiliary coastguard service and eventually found he was enjoying the voluntary work more than his day job. As a result he joined HM Coastguard full time in 1975.
Progressing through the ranks he moved from Cornwall to Sussex and Shetland, where he served as station officer for three-and-a-half years.
Further promotion followed a move, in 1983, to Aberdeen where he became the district controller. After the Piper Alpha disaster he headed the National Offshore Industry Liaison team, established within the coastguard service to focus on working with the oil and gas sector, which involved training and exercising offshore emergency teams.
Whilst he had had an interest in offshore safety before Piper Alpha, it was the tragedy that proved the catalyst for his drive to dramatically improve emergency response services and safety guidelines. His vision contributed hugely to establishing the well-drilled emergency response plans that exist throughout the industry today and he shared his knowledge with countless others, speaking at various conferences, including to a gathering of the International Association of Fire Fighters
Although he retired from the Coastguard in 1998 he never really stopped working. He returned to the service as a consultant for a year, provided emergency response training to senior oil personnel in Abu Dhabi and worked with Aberdeen-based Response Consultants and other response management companies on similar training.
He was also involved in bolstering the coastguard service in the Faroe Islands when the first oil exploration work began there around 2000.
Throughout his life he had a strong Christian faith – he often found a haven at the Seamen’s Mission in a foreign port – and latterly was heavily involved in St Columba’s Church in Aberdeen’s Bridge of Don, serving on its Rock Solid youth group team for many years and building scenery and sets for children’s holiday clubs.
Quiet and modest, despite his wide-ranging contributions, he was a gentleman in the true sense and died at his home – a real mariner’s house – surrounded by family and his library of maritime books.
He is survived by his wife Dee, daughter Claire, son Nick, three grandsons and his brother Robbie.