Piper Alpha deaths: A sad record that hopefully will never be beaten

Smoke billowing from the burning wreckage of the Piper Alpha oil production platform, after it exploded killing 167 workers on board. Picture: PA
Smoke billowing from the burning wreckage of the Piper Alpha oil production platform, after it exploded killing 167 workers on board. Picture: PA
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When the names of the 167 men who perished in the Piper Alpha disaster are read aloud at the 30th anniversary memorial service, Geoff Bollands will recognise all too many of them

The former offshore worker, 70, is travelling to Aberdeen with his son Paul to pay his respects to the colleagues and friends who did not make it off the blazing platform on July 6, 1988.

Mr Bollands is one of 61 men who survived the world’s worst offshore tragedy.

Three decades on, he still cannot understand how the mistakes that led to flames engulfing the platform were made.

It’s something he discusses in his book Baptism of Fire: Life, Death and Piper Alpha, published this month, and has touched upon in the more than 150 talks he has given around the world about his experience of surviving the disaster.

Mr Bollands, from Middlesbrough, said: “I’ve always just felt grateful that I got off.

“I’ve always talked about it - my doctor encouraged me to. It seems like the more I talk about it, the easier it gets.

“But I’ve got to say that as I wrote the book I had some quite emotional times. I shed the odd tear.”

The father of three was working as a production operator in the control room on the night of the disaster.

What started as a routine issue - a pump shutdown - quickly escalated and a blast threw him 15ft across the room.

A cloud of gas condensate, leaking from a pump missing a safety valve, had ignited.

An injured hip and thick black smoke hampered attempts to get an alert out and start the fire pumps.

He managed to escape Piper Alpha by climbing down a rope tied to a handrail and was picked up by a small rescue boat, taking one of two places left on it.

Read more: Piper Alpha inquiry author calls for safety ‘reporting culture’

He could only watch in horror as one explosion after another tore the platform apart and the accommodation block fell into the sea.

“My injuries (from the initial blast) saved my life really,” said Mr Bollands.

“Because I knew I couldn’t do much and I got off. I would have stayed behind like the other lads did.”

It was established that a pump men had been working on was brought back into use without anyone realising it no longer had a vital safety valve.

Mr Bollands, who left the industry to become a financial adviser, said: “I can’t understand why the job wasn’t handed over from one shift to another.

“Thirty years later I still don’t know the answer to that. Because they were conscientious, reliable colleagues of mine.

“Three people should have handed it over, three people should have received it. And out of six of them, five were killed.”

Mr Bollands said there was unlikely ever to be repeat of the scale of the Piper Alpha disaster, in part due to the 106 recommendations made by Lord Cullen following a public inquiry. Each was accepted by the industry.

He said: “The offshore installations are just a lot safer. For example, and it seems obvious now, but our hotel facility was next to the gas module - we should have been as far away from it as we possibly could.

“It was and still is the worst disaster in the offshore oil industry and that is where it needs to stay. It is a very sad record that hopefully will never be beaten.”

Mr Bollands spent the aftermath of the tragedy attending enquiries and recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Thirty years on, he will travel to Aberdeen to attend a service at the Piper Alpha memorial in the city’s Hazelhead Park on Friday.

He will never forget those who died or stop being thankful for his own survival.

The grandfather said of the psychological impact of the disaster: “I didn’t even know I had PTSD - people told me afterwards I had it.

“I didn’t get any professional help. My wife Christine was a nurse and kept trying to get me to go to a psychiatrist.

“I wouldn’t, I just kept saying there was nothing wrong with me, and it was everybody else.

“I got better when I decided not to go back to work offshore. I got on with my life, as my wife put it.”

Read more: New safety standards needed on Piper Alpha disaster anniversary