Piper Alpha

From Academic Kids

The Piper Alpha was a North Sea oil production platform operated by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd and Texaco, which owned a 22 percent share. An explosion and resulting fire destroyed it on July 6, 1988, killing 167 men.

The Piper Alpha platform on fire
The Piper Alpha platform on fire

A large fixed platform, Piper Alpha was situated on the Piper Oilfield, approximately 120 miles (either 200 or 220 km) northeast of Aberdeen in 474 feet (144 m) of water. It produced crude oil and natural gas from 24 wells for delivery to the Flotta oil terminal on Orkney and to other installations by three separate pipelines. It hosted a complement of about 240 personnel.

On 6 July, 1988, a leakage of natural gas condensate, which had built up beneath the platform ignited, causing a massive explosion. The explosion ignited secondary oil fires, melting the riser of an upstream gas pipeline. The released gas caused a second, larger explosion which engulfed the entire platform. The disaster was so sudden and extreme that conventional evacuation was impossible. Only 62 crewmen survived.

Some accounts say that the explosion and fire released the equivalent energy of 1/5 of the U.K.'s annual energy consumption.

That there was insufficient time for evacuation is controversial, to say the least. People were still getting off the platform several hours after the initial fires and explosions. The proximal problem was that most of the personnel who had the authority to order evacuation had been killed when the first explosion destroyed the control room. But that was a consequence of poor design of the platform, the absence of blast walls etc. Another contributing factor was that a nearby platform (the Tartan) continued to pump gas into the heart of the fire until its pipeline ruptured in the heat. The operations crew on the Tartan did not have authority to shut off production even though they could see that the Piper was burning.

The nearby support vessel Lowland Cavalier reported the initial explosion just before 22:00, and the second explosion occurred just 22 minutes later. By the time civil and military rescue helicopters reached the scene, flames over 100 metres in height and visible as far as 100 km (120 km from the Maersk Highlander) away prevented safe approach. Tharos, a specialist firefighting vessel, was able to approach the platform, but could not prevent its destruction.

Two crewmen from the Lowland Cavalier were killed when an explosion on the platform destroyed their "Fast Rescue Craft", which had recovered several survivors from the water. Tharos could not pump sufficient water to approach the burning platform until after the rupture of the Tartan pipeline, about 2 hours after the start of the disaster. Only once Tartan stopped pumping could Tharos come alongside. Tharos recovered no one that night.

The fire was eventually put out by a team led by famed firefighter Red Adair in which he had to battle 80mph winds and 70-foot waves.

The Cullen Enquiry was set up in November 1988 to establish the cause of the disaster. In November 1990, it concluded that the initial condensate leak was the result of maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and related safety valve. Piper Alpha's operator, Occidental, was found guilty of having inadequate maintenance procedures. A second phase of the enquiry made far-reaching safety recommendations, all of which were accepted by industry.

Practically all offshore workers in the North Sea would dispute the sincerity of the industry in some of their responses to the Cullen Report. Certainly the oil companies' response to Cullen's recommendation for full, organised worker representation has been less than full-hearted.

The wreck buoy marking the remains of the Piper is approximately 120 metres from the south-east corner of the replacement Piper Bravo platform. A lasting effect of the Piper Alpha disaster was the establishment of Britain's first "post-Margaret Thatcher" trade union, the Offshore Industry Liaison Alpha


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