Piper Alpha: Survivor says blast ‘was like yesterday’

Geoff Bollands working in the control room of Piper Alpha.
Geoff Bollands working in the control room of Piper Alpha.
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There are 24 hours of Geoff Bollands’ life that will never really pass.

The former offshore worker often replays the time between the first alarm lighting up on the control panel on Piper Alpha on 6 July, 1988, to the moment he walked through the front door of his home – bandaged, broken and changed – to reunite with his wife the next day.

“I can remember those hours, those minutes like they were yesterday,” says Bollands, now 70.

There is much, however, that Bollands can’t remember in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster, such as the time he physically dragged his wife out of B&Q because a tannoy announcement triggered a deep panic within him.

He also didn’t know about the hate mail that was sent to his home and the advice given to his children not to accept packages at the door. Once a stranger turned up to hand-deliver a letter asking why he deserved to live.

Neither can he recall when a devastated mother turned on him at a memorial service in Aberdeen in sheer despair that Bollands had survived while her son had not.

“There are things that I am only learning about now, things that I had no idea happened,” Bollands adds.

It was his wife Christine who quietly held on to these upsetting experiences for the best part of three decades as she tried to hold together family life in the long, painful recovery that followed the tragedy. She almost certainly won’t be alone.

Bollands suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster that killed 167 men when an explosion, caused by the mistaken connection of a faulty condensate pipe, ripped through the platform.

For a long time he was unaware that he was suffering from the condition or the pain he was causing his family as he struggled to cope with what happened during those 24 hours.

His daughter Rachel, who was 15 at the time of Piper Alpha, recalls in Bollands’ new book that her father was always in the house but never really there. Always wandering from room to room, staring out the windows, she remembers.

Christine does not like to talk about what happened and “is not happy” that the book Baptism of Fire has been released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

“Chris can’t understand why I have written the book. She spend five to six hours not knowing whether I was dead or not. It is a time of her life she doesn’t like to remember. She had to park that time and forget about it. But I felt it was something I had to do, although it has been tough at times to do.”

Bollands will travel to Aberdeen with his son to the remembrance service in Hazlehead Park tonight, where the names of the 167 offshore workers who died will be read out.

“It’s always emotional to be there. I have been up to the memorial numerous times and I always run through the names thinking ‘I knew him, I knew him, I knew him’,” Bollands adds.

Bollands had worked for eight years on Piper Alpha by the time of the disaster and recalls in his book the camaraderie, the good offshore food and the good money a career in the North Sea afforded.

But the dark times take over the pages. It was on his first stint offshore in 1978 that his son Daniel suddenly died on Christmas Day, aged just four, after developing pneumonia. Ten years later, Piper Alpha delivered more devastation.

Bollands recalled that his shift on the night of the disaster started with calm seas and a lighthearted mood, with many of the workers getting ready to leave the platform for leave the following day. For those finished their shift, the Chevy Chase comedy Caddyshack was playing in the lounge. For those starting the late turn, the last paperwork of the rotation was being completed.

Bollands went to phone his wife, as was the norm, with his colleague then later leaving the control room to do the same.Five minutes later the sequence of events which led to the Piper Alpha disaster began. Bollands was on his own.

Bollands adds: “It took just 35 minutes, from the first alarm coming into the control room up until the second explosion, the giant fireball that engulfed the platform and was the point of no return.”

Within minutes of the first alarm going off, the fire and gas panel “went ballistic” with the lights coming on ‘like a Christmas tree’.

He said it was with “mounting horror” that he realised that there was a massive gas leak in C module of the platform.

The first explosion occurred at 10pm, with Bollands thrown 15 feet across the control room, injuring his hip. Smoke started to fill the room but he managed to reach out and hit the large red emergency shutdown button before heading out onto the platform. By this time, a large oil fire was raging with the wind blowing the flames back onto the platform.Two of his colleagues, Bob Vernon and Robbie Carroll, followed control room procedure and put on breathing apparatus in order to start manually the emergency fire water pump, which lay the other side of the smoke. Bollands, suffering a hip injury caused by the first explosion, was unable to follow. It was the last time he saw his friends alive. “Seeing the two of them disappear into the smoke is a memory that is etched on my mind. It could – should – have been me but my minor injuries saved my life.,” he writes in Baptism of Fire.

As small explosions broke out across the platform and the workers became surrounded by smoke and flames, the only way was down into the water with Bollands grabbing a rope to descend around 90ft with his colleagues, the men sitting on each other’s heads as they tried to lower themselves to safety.

They were on the Silver Pit rescue craft when the second large explosion engulfed the platform in a massive fireball which served death on dozens of men. The bodies of 87 workers were found trapped in the accommodation block which later fell into the North Sea.

Bollands recalled horrific scenes of burning men jumping off the 90ft platform with other accounts noting how flaming oil floated on top of the North Sea as men tried to jump to safety. Some men leapt from the heliport which towers almost 180ft above sea level. Others found themselves trapped underwater by burning bits of debris.

Bollands spent more than three and a half years off work following Piper Alpha and eventually decided to return back offshore.

The night before his departure for the rig, he was deeply troubled by what lay ahead.

“My wife gave me the best advice she ever has that night. She told me she’d had enough and that I should go to sleep, get up in the morning, phone my boss and resign, close the book on the disaster, and get on with my life.”

He was able to make the call and leave his job but the return to a sense of normality took longer. Now a financial adviser, he says he feels blessed to have had 30 years of life since the night so many men perished.

“It wasn’t up to me that I recovered – but I am just grateful that I did.”

Baptism of Fire is published by Troubador and is available now.