Piper Alpha - The Night that Changed Our World

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The sky was alight and acrid smoke billowed into the cold air the night 167 men lost their lives – 28 years on and the scars of the Piper Alpha disaster have still not healed.

It was the biggest and most tragic incident that has taken place in the North Sea to date. Tea Shack News spoke to one survivor and two men whose fathers were on board Piper Alpha on that horrific night.

Shane Gorman’s dad, David, was a 41 year old safety officer on the platform and died on the night of July 6, 1988.  Shane explained to us how this tragic event affected his life and those he loves. “There was my life before Piper Alpha and there is my life after it” he said.

Shane was just 18 in 1988. He was starting his career in the army and the weekend of July 3 was a time to celebrate with his friends and family. Shane said: “I was going off to the Army for the first time to do my basic training and my dad was going offshore, so we had a family dinner to say good bye.”

On the Sunday afternoon Shane was dropped off at the train station by his dad, who was heading offshore the next day – neither knew it would be the last time they saw each other.

In those days, basic training meant no phones, newspapers, TVs or radios.  “My Commanding Officer came to visit and told me my dad had been in an accident. As a safety officer, dad had been involved in investigating incidents before so I thought nothing of it,” he said.

“The following day I was told to go home, still having no clear idea what had happened. I was dropped off at the train station in Darlington and the first thing I knew of the scale of Piper Alpha incident was when I went to buy a Mars Bar and I saw all the newspapers with pictures of a piece of twisted metal sticking out of the sea.

“It was the hardest journey I have ever been on. I cried the whole way home and I was comforted by two little old ladies. At that point I had no real information but I just knew he wasn’t coming home.

“When I got home, everyone was trying to support me and be there, but it was absolute chaos. There were people everywhere in the house, the press was calling and knocking at the door. It was horrible. I stayed there all weekend but there was nothing I could do. I felt completely helpless.

“Surprisingly, and bizarrely, despite the huge number of people trying to support me, I found myself dealing with it all completely and utterly alone. The overwhelming barrage and intensity of negative emotions are indescribable, which makes them incredibly difficult to communicate.

“The understanding you have of yourself and the world around you breaks down and many different uncontrollable feelings and emotions rush in and out of your being, but they are also all there at once.”

Shane, who now works offshore and is a safety rep, said he has learned to live with what happened, but the accident will always affect him and his family. “For a good 10 years after the accident my life spiralled into chaos. I wasn’t suicidal, but I didn’t care about myself or what happened to me.People don't realise the impact these things have on those left behind.” Shane said.

“Piper Alpha became sensational photos of a big fire ball, but the real impact was quickly forgotten. It’s about the 167 people who died at work and the effect that had on their families and children.”

Shane, who is a dad-of-two, said he thinks there have been huge improvements in safety offshore since the Piper Alpha but that more can and should be done. He said: “The message has to come from within. I feel passionate about safety offshore; I want to make a difference. Dad felt that way too; he knew it wasn’t safe on Piper Alpha.”

Gary Calder’s dad, Harry, was also on the platform that night alongside Shane’s dad. Harry survived the night, but Gary, who was 20 at the time of the incident, said he was never quite the same after that night.

Gary, who is a safety rep offshore and now a dad himself, said: “I remember thinking my dad was very quiet for a long time after Piper. I think he feels a lot of guilt that he survived and many other people hadn’t. I don’t think he ever had the intention of going offshore again but he did. I wouldn’t say it made him angry but he was a changed man after Piper.”

Gary was in Germany with the Army at a friend’s 21st birthday party when someone noticed the news coverage of the incident on TV. He said “Someone asked me what platform my dad was on. I replied ‘It’s something Alpha’ and that’s when I realised what was happening. I tried to contact my mum but couldn’t get through. “It wasn’t until the next morning he spoke to his mum and she told him his dad had survived.

“My dad never really spoke to us about what happened. I think he spoke to some of his friends but he’s a very private and strong person and doesn’t let his feelings show,” added Gary.

Gary said his dad was a massive influence in his life. “When I decided to go offshore, I had a very long chat with my dad and he was full of reassurance.  He told me to follow my instinct, which I know he did, and that’s why he is here today to pass on words of wisdom. My family aren’t too worried when I go offshore, even after what happened to my dad. I spent years in the Army and they always say ‘You’d get off wouldn’t you?’” he added.

A man who did ‘get off’ Piper Alpha was Steve Rae, now a consultant in the oil and gas industry, based in America.

In a heartfelt description of the weeks leading to the night of July 6th 1988, Steve identified several safety observations and hazards that he now wishes he had raised with his superiors at the time.

He said: “My first thoughts when I arrived on Piper Alpha were that it looked old and tired – it was 12 years old. I thought it looked run down however, having worked on other platforms, I didn’t see this as a problem and felt at the time that we just needed to get on and get the drilling job completed.”

Steve described how Piper had been modified significantly over the years and how “it was confusing to navigate – like a rabbit warren”. He could not remember ever being shown round the accommodation or taken to the appropriate safety muster areas when arriving on-board. “I thought I’d just get used to it and that’s just the way it was” said Steve.

Steve and his colleagues were on the drill floor when the first explosion occurred. They made their way to the accommodation block but Steve decided to return to the drill floor because the accommodation module had already started to fill with smoke.

Steve met a colleague who had also returned to the drill floor – both had ignored orders to go to muster. He said: “There was no way off except to jump the 80ft into the North Sea. The whole wellhead deck was being consumed by fire and I remember thinking “an 80ft jump wasn’t in the survival training that I have been involved in’.”

As the pair were building up their courage to take the lifesaving leap there was another explosion. When they reached the water they felt a sense of relief until a massive ball of fire and gas blew from the platform towards them in the sea. Both ducked below the water in a bid to avoid the flames. The pair were rescued by a support vessel where, once on-board, they watched helplessly as Piper Alpha burned in the night air.

Steve said since the incident he has often wondered if his safety observations would have made a difference to the outcome of the night. He is keen to make everyone aware of the importance of Major Accident Hazard management and commends the Joined-up Thinking films to aid this. Steve said: “These films reference factors which are known to contribute to incidents; change management, communications, complacency, control of work, competence, culture and commitment. Each film describes a real incident and presents an opportunity to increase our awareness and understanding of risks and hazard, if we chose to play our part.”

The men who died on Piper Alpha are commemorated in the film Remembering Piper which can be downloaded from https://www.stepchangeinsafety.net/safety-resources/safety-videos or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qxHfaweV3vs. The film identifies failings in the processes on-board Piper and asks thought-provoking questions about whether the issues that led to the Piper disaster are being effectively controlled today.  The Joined-up Thinking packs focussing on controlling Major Accident Hazards, and in particular hydrocarbon releases, are available from the Step Change in Safety website.  The workgroup that created the Joined-up Thinking videos is currently making another series, the first one being released in August 2016.