The Day the Sea Caught Fire: 20 years after the Piper Alpha explosion, the survivors get to tell their story

The Piper Alpha explosion was the world's worst off-shore oil disaster. The disaster killed 167 men, only 59 men of the crew survived. The death toll includes 2 men from a rescue vessel. Insurance claims totaled $3.4 billion USD.

The fire was visible 70 miles away as a distant, flickering flame on the horizon.

The heat generated was so intense that a helicopter could only circle at a perimeter of one mile, the tongues of flame extending hundreds of feet above the rotor blades.

On the sea surface, a converted fishing trawler inched as close as possible. But the paint on the vessel's hull blistered and the rope handrails began to smoke. In the water, men's heads could be seen bobbing like apples as their scalps roasted in the heat.

Still just about standing at the centre of the inferno was the Piper Alpha oil platform. It had exploded in a massive ball of flames with 226 men on board as a result of a gas leak. Only 59 of them would survive.

Within two hours of the initial explosion on that fateful night 20 years ago, the rig had collapsed from its position 300ft above the surface of the sea and become a flaming pyre of twisted metal.
This is the story of the worst off-shore oil disaster the world has ever seen, told as never before, by those who survived it.

By 1988, the oil platform that had once been the world's single largest oil producer, was starting to show its age.

The time when it produced 317,000 barrels of oil a day was long gone.

The price of oil had slumped and oil companies were slashing their budgets. In a hint of growing frailty, Piper Alpha had suffered a small explosion in 1984, triggered by a gas escape, and dozens of men had been evacuated by helicopter.

But there was far worse to come - and on that July afternoon ten years ago, the danger lay unseen for hours before disaster struck.

It was down to one small safety valve, one of more than 100 identical devices that were essential to prevent a dangerous build-up of liquid gas in an area of the oil rig known as C module.

As part of routine maintenance and safety procedure, technicians had removed, checked and replaced all these valves - all except for this one, which had been taken off earlier that day and checked, but never put back.

At 10pm, unaware that the safety valve had not been replaced, a technician pressed a start button for the liquid gas pumps - and the gas began to leak out of it.

Piper Alpha was now primed, like a bomb, to blow. No one was aware of it, but for each man on board, a clock had begun to tick.

Within two hours, the mere length of a Hollywood movie, the platform would become a blackened skeleton, and its accommodation blocks sunken coffins on the ocean bed.

The horror began as the 226 men on board were settling down for the evening. Ian Fowler, a joiner, was waiting for the racing results on the radio.

Mark Reid, a lead foreman with a drilling company, had arrived on-board that morning and was taking a break in the tea shack. Bob Ballantyne, an electrician, had just come off the phone to his wife.

Within seconds of the gas pumps being turned on, the first explosion happened, ignited probably by a tiny spark. It could have come from the electrics, from anywhere - no one knows.

In the cinema, where many were watching the golf movie Caddyshack, light fittings fell from the ceiling and the screen collapsed. Workers recalled a flash of white light and a noise described as a banshee's wail.

The radio room on top of the rig overlooking on one side the green of the helideck was partly destroyed.

On the other side of the room was the mechanical clutter of the pipedeck, but smoke and flame now obscured and rose above it.

'Mayday, mayday. . . explosion and fire on the oil rig on the platform and we'll (sic) abandoning abandoning the rig.'

That garbled first message from the radio operator was broadcast on the emergency distress frequency at four-and-a-half minutes past ten.

It was followed two minutes later by another, which conveyed the state of panic: 'Mayday Mayday . . . we require any assistance available. Any assistance available. We've had an explosion and, er, a very bad explosion and fire. Er, the radio room is badly damaged.'

At 10.08pm: 'Mayday Mayday... we're abandoning the radio room, we're abandoning the radio room. We can't talk any more, we're on fire.'

As the disaster unfolded, most people gathered in the galley below where, within 30 minutes, the smoke was thick and men lay on the floor, clutching to their faces torn strips of towel that had been dunked in the galley's ornamental fish tanks.

Among those in the galley was the man in charge of the oil rig, installation manager Colin Seaton. He struggled to exert authority and confidence in the face of growing fear. He was the man everyone was turning to for orders and guidance, but he was crumbling under the pressure.

At first, he tried to tell everyone to calm down, that a Mayday had been sent, and that the wh*** world knew they were in trouble.

As the smoke became denser and the clamour for information grew, Seaton climbed up on to a table in an attempt to exert his faltering command, but his words were drowned out by the din of his panicking crew.

They were trapped, surrounded by flame and smoke. All Seaton could do was to tell them to calm down, that as part of the emergency procedure, four men with breathing apparatus were at that very moment outside the galley trying to find a safe passage for everyone to escape.

Using a hand-held radio, he attempted to reach the men for an update. Four times he tried, to be greeted only with silence.

As one witness recalled: 'The flames were right along the north face and the east face of the galley, and they were actually breaking the windows, and the flames just started to come in the windows, and the door in the galley was on fire.'

At 10.33pm, an unknown voice relayed on Channel 9 of the VHF radio what would be the final transmission from Piper Alpha: 'People majority in galley area. Tharos come. Gangway/hoses. Getting bad.'

Tharos was a 30,000-ton multi-support vessel for the rig, providing hospital accommodation and technical back-up. Its crew needed no radio message to understand how bad things were - they could see the apocalypse developing before their eyes.

David Olley, the medic on Tharos, went up the boat's helideck where he expected to see a few wisps of smoke coming from the rig. What he saw convinced him no one could survive.

Then he overheard the helicopter landing officer, a meticulous professional, swear over the VHF radio when describing the situation to a neighbouring platform.

He said: ' "A" module is on fire, "B" module is on fire, "C" module is on fire. We have fire from water level to the helideck, in fact the wh*** f***ing thing is on fire.'

On the oil platform a handful of men had managed to get off the rig, after climbing down a rope and jumping into the water. Others were trying to escape from the galley, but most of the staircases were choked with thick black smoke.

Several workers were shielding themselves from the intense heat in a fabrication shop where tools and machinery were fixed.

Here, joiner Ian Fowler and others, their cheeks pressed to the floor, kept themselves conscious by constant talking. Hope was quickly diminishing - along with the breathable air and, this far north, the last of the summer light. Creaking groans and collapsing walkways sounded all around them.
Instrument technician Roy Carey was struggling down some stairs with breathing apparatus to a point some 70ft above the water when a second, more terrible, explosion struck.

A major pipeline filled with high-pressure gas ruptured.

As more than 450 cubic tonnes of gas escaped, a fireball enveloped the platform and rose to a height of 700ft.

Carey dived overboard through the wall of flame. 'I had hoped that the flame would pass, but then I was enveloped in it and I realised I was just being burned up. So I launched myself off. I hoped that I would not hit anything on my way down.'

Conscious of the height from which he dropped, he tried to minimise his resistance to the water. 'I tried to make as clean a dive as I could. So I kept my hands very straight and as a result I went very, very deep.'

So deep did Carey sink that he feared he would never reach the surface before the pressure on his lungs forced him to take a breath.

When he did surface it was to an inferno that appeared to hover just a few feet above the surface of the sea, cooking the air underneath.

It was like being under a grill. He struggled and tried to keep his head underwater as his face began to burn. He thought he was going to die. 'It was a low time . . . I was being cooked alive.'

Flames were igniting his hair and burning layers of skin off his face, and every time he tried to scream, it was like swallowing fire. Convinced death was imminent, Carey preferred to drown than roast.

He deliberately sank six feet down where he could see the flaming orange above; then it turned to white and he thought of his eldest daughter's wedding dress and remembered his promise to give his youngest child the wedding of her dreams.

He decided he could not die, swam to the surface, away from the platform and finally wedged himself into the side of a wrecked lifeboat.

Back in the galley, many were still trapped and the situation was becoming more desperate by the minute.

Rigger Jim McDonald, a large man with a bald head and mutton chop whiskers, thought to himself: 'Get yourself off', and then went to collect his friend and cabin-mate Francis McPake, who was reluctant to follow.

McDonald managed to cajole him as far as the reception area next to one of the platform's small shops, where the smoke drifted around the boxes of Marathon bars, packets of Fisherman's Friends and Murray Mints.

McPake would go no further and instead slumped down on to the floor, where McDonald, left him with regret and remorse.

He then found his way to the stairway and began to crawl down level after level. The smoke was so thick he could hardly breathe, so he put his jumper over his head to strain the smoke through the wool.

And then there were the bodies. Some men had passed out after 15 to 20 minutes of breathing in smoke, and parts of the staircase were blanketed with their bodies.

McDonald, in deep distress, was forced to crawl over them.

Some had decided to go up, rather than down, and the helidecks had become home to a huddled community of the trapped, waiting for salvation to come from the sky.

There were small groups dotted across the two helidecks as well as the roofs of the accommodation wing and the damaged radio room.

One man was scaling the drilling derrick in the hope of rising above the smoke and somehow being winched off by a helicopter.

The din of the escaping gas, roaring all around, and the sharp crackle of fire was deafening. At times, they were entirely ringed in smoke, but sometimes the high winds would clear their view and they could see the Tharos, just a few hundred metres away, a distance that might as well have been miles for all the assistance the vessel could offer.

On the roof of the radio room a group of men, convinced the end was near, began to talk of how much they loved their wives, the fear of never seeing their children grow up. They began asking where, in their darkest hour, was God?

Scaffolder Joe Meanen stood and listened. He had no wife, no children, but was determined to have the option of them and somehow survive the night.

He walked across the roof and on to the helideck where no helicopter could possibly land because of the heat and smoke.

He was looking down towards the Tharos - which was now dousing the helidecks with its water cannon - when another gas pipe, weakened by the intense heat, gave out.

This flooded the fire with enough gas to power millions of homes, enveloping the helideck with sheer walls of fire that rose 500 feet above their heads, curving over to form a basilica of flame.

Men on the immediate edge of the helideck were engulfed instantly by the flames, while those nearer the middle had time to turn and run. Impulsively, Meanen ran across the helideck and jumped down into the water 170ft below.

It was only when his back foot took off that he thought: 'What the f*** have I done?' He fell for six seconds, and as he fell, he burned. But he lived.

Mark Reid, the drilling foreman, also threw himself from the helideck into the water 170ft below.

His body reached terminal velocity, at 120 miles per hour, and he could easily have been killed by the force of hitting the water. Somehow, he survived and drifted out into the night.

In the water, the electrician Bob Ballantyne, who had jumped from the 70ft level, had no time to regret the friends he had seen devoured by the fireball.

He was under the rig, still fighting for his life, with chunks of steel dropping down around him every few seconds, and the sea in front of him was coated in oil or already alight.

He watched as a giant crane, hundreds of tons of iron and steel, collapsed into the water, sending salt water spray into his face.

Ballantyne faced an agonising choice: to stay under and die as the rig collapsed, or to swim out in oil-coated water which could swallow him in flames at any moment.

He made his decision and kicked out from the platform between islands of floating fire. He was conscious of three reasons for living: his wife, the three-week holiday in France they had booked, and the faint, glorious prospect of Clyde Football Club lifting the European Cup.

Rescue vessels were by now picking up survivors. By the light of an Aldis lamp, crew on the Silver Pit, a converted trawler which acted as a 24-hour stand-by vessel for the rig in case of emergency, could see a shattered lifeboat from the platform in the water.

On this broken, twisted hunk of wood, Roy Carey painfully lifted his head, burned down to the bone, and wondered if his prayers had been answered. The Silver Pit sent its fast rescue craft and Carey was picked up just before 11pm.

Another rescue craft heard a cry in the night and ventured towards the rig until the crew's faces were burning. In the oily blackness which glowed from the fire, they finally saw two white points appear on the surface. Mark Reid, one of the men who had jumped from 170ft, had opened his eyes.

Around 11.15pm, the message came through to Tharos to move back from Piper Alpha for fear of an underwater explosion. Tharos requested that all survivors be brought to her.

Around 11.20pm the last and biggest explosion of the night, as the third of the three main gas pipes blew up, signalled the end for anybody left in the accommodation modules and for almost all the hundred or more workers who still waited in the galley in the futile hope of rescue.

As modules crashed down and decks collapsed, the seabed became a junkyard of debris. Anybody who now survived did so by a miracle.

The fabrication shed where Ian Fowler had prepared himself for death, collapsed in such a way as to give him access to the ruins of the derrick which he used as a climbing frame, burning his hands and melting the soles of his shoes as he managed to find a stage from which to jump into the fiery sea.

The Silver Pit's fast rescue craft, battered and blackened with smoke was by now dodging debris and dead bodies to pick up desperate men.

It was losing power and taking on water, but as it turned back to the Silver Pit, the crew spotted a hand waving.
It was 100ft under the collapsing platform, and rescue was a daunting task for any craft, let alone one beginning to sink, but the crew went for it. There could be just one pass, and they gunned the engine.
The heat intensified and the boat rocked as it dodged debris, but three sets of arms stretched out and snatched the man up as they passed.

The survivor was grey and coughing with smoke residue, but he was alive, one of around 30 men that the craft rescued.

Electrician Bob Ballantyne had drifted far from the platform. His face and hair were black with oil when he saw a Norwegian boat and waved with the last of his strength. He was hauled aboard and treated for his burning face with a packet of frozen peas.

Some hours later Ballantyne was taken to a helicopter. He looked down on the wreckage - his workplace, his quarters, the friends he had known. Then he rested his head against the window and began to sob.

Adapted from FIRE IN THE NIGHT: THE PIPER ALPHA DISASTER by Stephen McGinty, published by Macmillan

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Comment by Stephen Diver on March 15, 2010 at 3:03am
i still remember hearing about this when my dad was still alive and his reaction to it was something just stuck with me, i only ever saw him get upset at 3 events that i remeber and this was one of them.
At the time he was still with SAS (Australia) and he was working on the Oil Rig Defence Program, he visted Piper Alpha about 18 months before it all hapened as a part of that reserch to see how the RN and SBS etc handled their rigs.
Anyway, i just remember him staring at the tv in shock (the imiages were pretty graphic as far as the fire went), he then jumped on the phone and rang up a few people he met during his stay to make sure they were ok (not just divers all aeras).
Most were due to not being on that shift but 3 were Killed that he new who were 'great guys that he shared a beer or two with ashore.

Stephen. Aussie
Comment by William Greenwood on January 29, 2010 at 9:53pm
James Hi,

following is the link to details on the film, regards Woody
Comment by William Greenwood on January 28, 2010 at 9:11pm
Hi it's Woody,
I've not been on the site for a long time, but regrading the Piper I was involved with the doc**entary "The Men of Piper Alpha" I was one of two divers on the on filming. I'm based in Aberdeen Scotland if you get a chance to see it its a really good insite into the disaster pitched via a survivour, work men, mother, and family of the men.
Comment by James Bell on January 8, 2010 at 12:55pm
Thank you

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