The Piper Alpha oil rig disaster, which occurred in 1988, remains the worst ever oil rig accident. Of the 226 mean on board the platform at the time only 61 survived. Two crewmen on a rescue boat also perished and 30 bodies were never recovered.
The Piper Alpha Oil Rig
Piper Alpha, located around 120 miles north east of Aberdeen, started oil production in 1976. By 1988 the platform was producing both crude oil and natural gas. The platform was of modular construction, with the control room sited as far away as possible from the dangerous drilling area. When the platform was modified to produce gas the huge condensate pumps, which pressurised the gas, were located near the control room and this was to play a critical role in the disaster. Piper Alpha was owned and operated by Occidental Petroleum.
Cause of the Oil Rig Accident
Due to their remote locations any oil rig accident is serious, but circumstances combined on Piper Alpha to produce a disaster of devastating proportions. In the accident the platform was almost completely destroyed, but investigators were able to trace the cause to a missing component on a condensate pump.
The Piper Alpha Disaster
Soon after pump A was switched on gas began to leak and several alarms were triggered. The platform was then rocked by a huge explosion. The control room, which was situated near the pumps, was damaged, although the rig supervisor did manage to hit the emergency shutdown button.
The various modules on Piper Alpha were separated by fire walls, but these were not blast proof. The first explosion ripped some of these walls apart and ruptured oil lines, resulting in an oil fire. Many of the crew made their way to the accommodation block under the helicopter deck to await rescue, but strong winds and smoke prevented any helicopters from landing.
At this stage there were probably only a few casualties, but the oil rig accident was about to get much worse. Two neighbouring rigs, Claymore and Tartan, did not shut down their operations despite a mayday call from Piper Alpha. Oil continued to be pumped into a communal pipe and towards the stricken rig. This fuelled the oil fire and, at 10.20pm the intense heat caused a gas line to rupture. Another enormous explosion rocked Piper Alpha.
Half an hour later, and with the neighbouring rigs still pumping oil, another gas line failed. Some crewmen survived by jumping into the sea, but many remained in the accommodation block. The module eventually fell into the sea around 11.20pm, by which time Claymore and Tartan had finally shut down.
The Legacy of Piper Alpha
In the wake of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster an enquiry took place, under the supervision of Lord Cullen. It found Occidental guilty of poor maintenance and safety standards, but the company was never tried in a criminal court. Over 100 recommendations for improvement were made and accepted following the disaster.
It is likely that the magnitude of the disaster would have been much less had the neighbouring rigs shut down immediately. With the huge losses incurred by shutting down production on an oil rig it was a case of profit before safety.
Those affected most by the disaster set up the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association to campaign for better safety conditions for North Sea workers. A memorial statue was also erected in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen
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