The Piper Alpha Explosion and Fire
world's worst offshore disaster claimed 167 lives when an
explosion and fire occurred on the Piper Alpha platform in the
North Sea in 1988. The subsequent inquiry made 106 safety
Lessons learned from the disaster have been used across the
world to improve safety, not only in the oil industry but also
in the nuclear,
airline, military and other industries.
The BBC made a documentary programme analysing the events which occurred
that night and this is available as a safety training
DVD called "Spiral
joint venture of four companies obtained a licence in 1972 to
explore for oil and gas under the North Sea. In early 1973 they
discovered what was to become known as the Piper Field,
approximately 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen.
An oil terminal was built at Flotta in the Orkney Islands to
receive oil by a 30-inch diameter undersea pipeline from the Piper
Alpha platform and the Claymore and Tartan platforms.
Oil production began in 1976, and gas production in
links carrying oil and gas between these locations became
in the subsequent disaster.
Piper Alpha Platform
Piper Alpha platform was fabricated in sections by McDermott Engineering of
Ardersier and UIE of Cherbourg. The two parts were
amalgamated at Ardersier before the platform was towed to its
location in 474 feet of water in 1975.
An important aspect of the design of the oil platform was that
dangerous operations which could result in fire, explosion or
other physical dangers were located away from the personnel area.
this safety precaution was abandoned when gas production began,
and a propane condensate pump was located near the control room.
This modification to the design of the platform later proved to be a fatal error.
Piper Alpha was operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia)
Ltd, known as "OpCal". At the time of the disaster
Piper Alpha handled approximately 10% of the total oil and gas
output from the North Sea.
pressure safety valve of Condensate Pump "A" was
removed for routine maintenance, a blanking piece was put in its
place and the necessary paperwork stating that the pump should
not be switched on was completed. Unfortunately, the
unavailability of the pump was not drawn to the attention of
personnel in the control room.
"B" failed and the staff in the control room searched
for paperwork regarding the state of Pump "A" and its
safety valve. None was found and Pump "A" was
On 6th July 1988 the temporary blanking plate
failed and a high pressure gas leak occurred. The gas caught
fire almost immediately and there was a huge explosion. The blast
damaged another pipe, causing a second fire.
Piper Alpha was equipped with a fire control system. Normally,
this would activate automatically, but it had been switched to 'manual
control' because divers in the sea would have been in danger of being
sucked into the water inlets if the system started. However,
the fire system's manual control was in the control room that
was near the heart of the explosion and which had been
Lifeboat stations were provided on the platform and the safety
instructions directed the men to them in an emergency. However, they
found their way barred by fire, so instead made their way to the
fireproofed accommodation block. Rescue helicopters were unable to land on this and rescue the men due to the fire, smoke
The fire continued to blaze because oil and gas were still
being pumped to
Piper Alpha from Claymore and Tartan, despite emergency calls
made to these locations.
Out Of Control
gas pipe from Tartan ruptured, resulting in a further explosion
and a fire that reached 450 feet into the air.
Another pipeline ruptured and exploded. The fire from the
pipeline reached 300ft
into the air. It was only after this explosion that Claymore ceased pumping oil to Piper Alpha.
The heat began to soften the steel and affect the structural
integrity of the platform, with catastrophic results. The
fireproof accommodation block, containing most of the men who
had not jumped off the rig, came loose and fell into the sea.
Soon most of the remainder of the platform also slipped beneath
The causes of the 167 fatalities were suffocation by toxic fumes, by fire and through
drowning. A memorial sculpture to the victims by Sue Jane Tyller
stands in the Rose Garden of Hazlehead Park in Aberdeen.
Cullen chaired a public inquiry into the events that led to the
destruction of Piper Alpha and consequent loss of life. The 106 safety recommendations
in the inquiry's report comprised 37 relating to the procedures
for operating the equipment, 32 connected with the relaying of
information to the platform personnel, 25 concerning the design
of the platform and 12 involving the provision of timely
information to the emergency services.
training includes the BBC's
"Spiral to Disaster" DVD about the Piper Alpha tragedy. Details can be found
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