Piper Alpha: Sir Ian Wood describes “huge sense of shame”

Sir Ian Wood was head of oil services giant Wood Group at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster with the company losing 39 men in the tragedy. PIC: Jane Barlow.
Sir Ian Wood was head of oil services giant Wood Group at the time of the Piper Alpha disaster with the company losing 39 men in the tragedy. PIC: Jane Barlow.
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Oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood said he felt a “huge sense of shame” following the Piper Alpha tragedy which marks its 30th anniversary today.

Sir Ian was chief executive of Wood Group oil services company at the time of the tragedy and was a pivotal figure in building the North Sea oil and gas industry.

Of 167 men who died following the explosions on Piper Alpha, which was owned by operator Occindental, 39 worked for Wood Group.

Sir Ian described events as “utterly traumatic” for all involved.

He said: “I felt a huge sense of shame and thought ‘how the hell had this happened?’

“Although I didn’t feel we were directly involved, we employed people that were our responsibility. You were bound to feel that.”

Sir Ian received a phone call during the night to tell him about the fire on the platform, which sat around 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen,

He had been due to fly to the United States that morning but headed to Aberdeen Airport around 5am to try and meet survivors as they came onshore.

He said: “We were seeing massive flames on the television but there was no good information coming through. People didn’t know what had happened, the scale of it. We certainly didn’t know that 167 people had died.”

Sir Ian visited 21 homes to meet the families of his employees who died, with the company holding its own church service of remembrance.

He said: “It’s the darkest moment by far in my business career. When I visited houses, I had my fingers crossed that young kids would be there. They helped.”

Sir Ian recalled the reception from relatives as being “generally OK”.

“There was still sense of shock and some degree of anger. That didn’t really manifest itself, but it was there I think, under the surface.

“There was just such a huge, overwhelming feeling of loss.”

Sir Ian said it took him a long time to get over what had happened.

“There is no-one who was involved in what happened who will ever forget it.

“People say you remember where you were when JFK died. It’s the same thing with Piper Alpha. It was utterly traumatic on every level.

He added: “My niece was getting married a week after what happened. I had been working long, long hours, trying to do everything we could to help the staff, the families, to make sure we organised a proper church service. I went to the wedding and I honestly remember nothing about it.”

For the industry, Sir Ian described Piper Alpha as a “very, very, very negative Eureka moment” which went on to transform safety offshore.

The industry reportedly invested £1 billion in safety improvement before Lord Cullen’s public inquiry reported. Then, 106 recommendations were made within his report, all of which were accepted by industry.

Sir Ian said with the “wisdom of hindsight” he could compare the offshore safety regime of 1988 as being graded a C or C minus, when today it would be given an A.

“I had no feeling for that at the time, though. I had not sensed that this was at the time an unsafe industry. I think that was part of the shock,” he added.

Sir Ian said: “There was lots of uncertainty about what happened, how it had started, but again, with hindsight, you can see there were five or six different areas where problems lay. If just one of those had worked properly, then it could have been prevented. You would have had a small fire, but a complete disaster would have been prevented. I would never say that Piper Alpha couldn’t happen again but it is hard to imagine it happening again because safety is now at the forefront of what everybody does.”

Tonight, Sir Ian will lay a wreath on behalf of Wood Group along with Sue MacDonald, the company’s executive president of people and organisation, at the Piper Alpha Memorial in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen.