Stephen McGinty: True cost of a nation’s wealth

Three women in Aberdeen have launched a £1m campaign to restore the memorial to the victims of the world’s worst offshore oil disaster. They deserve the support of all of us, writes Stephen McGinty

Three women in Aberdeen have launched a £1m campaign to restore the memorial to the victims of the world’s worst offshore oil disaster. They deserve the support of all of us, writes Stephen McGinty

Memorials should not themselves be forgotten. We abandon the dead not once, but twice when that which we erect as a poignant reminder is itself allowed to slip from our memory. And among the dead who should never be forgotten are the 167 men of Piper Alpha, once the world’s single largest oil producer, which, on the evening of the 6 July, 1988, and in less than two hours – the length of a Hollywood movie – was reduced to a flaming pyre of twisted metal.

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Yet recent visitors to the memorial statue, which sits high up on a plinth of pink granite, surrounded by an embrace of rosebeds in Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen, say 20 years of wind and rain have left their mark, while the grounds whisper of weary neglect.

For Pat Ballantyne, the widow of Bob Ballantyne, who swam through a sea of fire to escape the inferno, only to succumb to cancer in 2004, and who visited the statue each anniversary , the current state is unacceptable. Together with two employees of an offshore services company, Lucy Norval and Carol Banks they have launched the “Pound For Piper” campaign with the aim of raising £1 million by next July, the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.

Although £1m appears, at first glance, to be a far greater sum than the site requires, any project that aims to maintain the memory of an event which was a cross between the Titanic and The Towering Inferno in the public consciousness secures my vote, and pound.

What took place far beyond the horizon that terrible night, (Piper Alpha lay 110 miles north-east of Aberdeen) deserves to be better known, especially the heroism of the crew of the small fast rescue crafts that skirted around flames to rescue the survivors.

In fact, it was Bob Ballantyne who convinced me to write a book, Fire In The Night, about the disaster. While carrying out my initial research, prior to the 20th anniversary, I discovered an interview in which Ballantyne spoke of hearing the first explosion, then deciding to return to his cabin to fetch a book, Voltaire’s Candide. He assumed, as many did, that he would soon be helicoptered ashore and preferred to do so in the company of a good read. As it was exactly what I would have done, it somehow served as a door through the complex machinery and technical details to the human cost.

Yet the story of the memorial is an equally moving one. Although the families of the bereaved were keen to erect a memorial, it was Dr Sutherland, the father of Stuart Sutherland, a 21-year-old student who had been working on the platform as a cleaner and whose body was never recovered, who believed that it should be modelled on the memorial at Spean Bridge to the Commandos who trained in the Highlands during the Second World War. Three larger-than-life figures, each facing in a different direction, stand on a plinth that declares: “United We Conquer”.

The artist who won the commission was Sue Jane Taylor, who was raised in Dingwall and who, as a child, watched as those “cathedrals of steel” began rolling out of the Nigg Construction yard on the Cromarty Firth. A fine art graduate of Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Taylor saw the artistic beauty in a landscape where nature and industry collided and had dedicated a considerable part of her career to preserving the oil and gas industry in oil, sculpture and paint.

She was also unique among the contenders in having spent a week on Piper Alpha, as an artist in residence, and departed cradling a pewter tanker which read: “We did 100 Days. Piper A”, which marked the days since the last accident. In fact she learned of the platform’s fate from a news report on the radio while working in her studio in Hackney on an exhibition, Oil Worker Scotland, in which she had captured the men of Piper Alpha, the majority of whom were now dead, in acrylic and Conte sketches.

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After the disaster, Occidental, the American owner of Piper Alpha, had contacted her with a view to purchasing all her photographs, sketches and drawings, but she refused and exhibited them at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh to acclaim and praise from the victims’ families. However, the pressure to construct the memorial was intense and relentless. Working in the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Lumsden, a small village in Aberdeenshire, she experimented with the three figures that would represent the oil industry, but it was when she was introduced to Bill Barron, who modelled for her, that the sculpture came to life.

A survivor of Piper Alpha, Barron was, at the time, drowning his demons in whisky. One evening his wife, Trisha, came home to discover that he had dug a six-foot hole in the garden, which looked suspiciously like a grave. He could not explain why.

As the foreman of a paint squad “chasing the rust” on Piper Alpha, he was consumed by guilt at the death of one of his lads, newly married, who had asked for extra overtime, which he had granted, and so was onboard the platform when the remainder of the team were on a neighbouring vessel, the Tharos. Yet, posing in a survival suit, boots and hard hat would prove a cathartic experience for Barron, who was able to talk through his own traumas – trying to inflate a life raft only to see it swept under the burning platform and, unable to swim, dangling from a rope – as Taylor listened and seemed to press the pain into the plaster.

The three figures, one facing west and representing the physical nature of offshore trades, one facing east and representing youth and eternal movement and, finally, the central bronze figure, which faces north and whose left hand holds a pool of oil sculpted in the shape of an unwinding spiral, were all cast at the Burleighfield Foundry in High Wycombe, then mounted on a plinth of Corrennine pink granite.

The cost of the memorial was estimated at £100,000 and from the beginning the oil companies of the North Sea were reluctant to dip into their pockets to fund a permanent public reminder of their blackest hour. Occidental refused numerous requests for financial assistance, including a letter from Bob Ballantyne asking that they donate the scrap value of the accommodation module from which the majority of the dead were recovered. The company also put pressure on the industry to ignore requests, with the result that seven companies failed to reply to letters from the memorial committee, while the reminder contributed a combined total of just £14,000, of which the largest donation was £2,000 and the smallest £150. Since neither Aberdeen Council nor the memorial committee could afford to make up the difference the Scottish Office stepped in and covered the shortfall of £40,000.

The niggardliness of the oil and gas industry extended to the memorial’s unveiling by the Queen Mother. The day, 6 July, 1991, was a rare hot summer’s day and more than 1,000 people saw her tug back the velvet veil and reveal the statue. Offshore, a number of memorials were planned. At the Brent Bravo, there was an hour’s stoppage in remembrance, while on the Safe Gothia, extracts of the testimony of the survivors were read aloud, along with poems of remembrance. Time spent on reflection, however, came at a cost. Press Offshore, a major contractor, permitted a 15-minute remembrance, but docked the pay of anyone who took an hour. Occidental, meanwhile, posted a memo permitting a one-minute silence.

The time has surely come for the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen to atone for such shameful behaviour and give its strongest support for the new campaign. Indeed, I understand that Oil & Gas UK, the collective voice of the industry, had already been in touch with Aberdeen Council, prior to the launch of the ‘“Pound for Piper” campaign, with a view to assisting with any funding required for the memorial and gardens.

The plinth and statue in Hazlehead Park are more than a memorial, as locked within the marble are the ashes of those unidentifiable remains recovered from the sunken accommodation block; together they form a tomb.

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The impending referendum on independence has raised the issue of North Sea oil in a manner not seen since the Seventies, so it is only correct that the new campaign succeeds and visitors to Hazlehead Park can continue to trace their fingers along the chiselled names of those 167 men and enjoy the time and space to ponder the real cost of a nation’s wealth and the true price of petrol.