I first wrote this blog post two years ago …..on the 25th anniversary of the disaster that wrecked so many lives. Tragic events are often marked in the media in groups of 5 year intervals ….. I guess they think this makes it more dramatic ….I really don’t know. But for people who were caught up in any disaster, every year is a reminder ….and so I have decided to re-blog this again. It is a long, arduous piece and I know that many of you will have already read it ……so please just pass it by. But for those of you who are new to my blog ….well ….it may be a revelation ……a rare glimpse into the most private parts of my family life.
And also a reminder of the danger men face when they work in the oil industry ….. extracting the oil on which we all depend.
PIPER ALPHA ……… One night in July
Twenty-seven years ago, today, the Piper Alpha oil and gas production platform was destroyed by a series of massive explosions. The platform was situated in the North Sea, approximately 140 miles East of Aberdeen. At the time of the disaster, Piper A was the World’s most prolific, single platform, producing 340,000 barrels of oil per day from 36 wells. The loss of the platform was the World’s worst off-shore disaster and 167 souls lost their lives.
This terrible event has been well documented. There are videos and timelines of the disaster, readily available on the internet. Inquiries have been held, books have been written and safety issues and recommendations have been raised. So, I have no need to add to all of that, this blog is an account of my husband’s experiences on that dreadful night and of the impact it had on our family.
Time may, thankfully, have dimmed the memory of some of the worst aspects of the event, but everything herein is completely factual.
I would also like to pay tribute to my husband, Ian, for allowing me to finally write, publicly, about this event. I know how much he has valued his anonymity. Also a huge thank you to him for allowing me to drag up some painful memories.
WEDNESDAY 6th of JULY.
Wednesday, 6th of July, 1988, was a beautiful Summer’s day. I had been into Inverurie, approximately 5 miles from our home near Monymusk in Aberdeenshire. I had wandered around the little market town, buying a few treats in readiness for my husband’s return from Piper A, the next day. He worked a “week on/week off” rota and I always picked him up at the Heliport in Dyce. It was one of those lovely, hot, still days and Inverurie was very quiet, with hardly anyone around. I didn’t realise that it was the quiet before the storm. In a few short hours so many lives would be changed, forever.
Thursday morning dawned, bright and clear; another lovely Summer’s day. Crew change days are always hectic and this was no exception and so my Mother, phoning at about 7.30am was a really unwelcome intrusion, as I battled to serve breakfast to a yawning 17yr old son and a prattling 9yr old daughter. I’m afraid I was rather impatient as my Mum asked if Ian was home. Then she mumbled, incoherently, something about the news on TV.
” No,Mum,” I sighed, ” I don’t watch TV in the morning. There are too many distractions already, without some cheery presenters on an over-stuffed sofa !”
Then she asked if I knew there had been an accident on an oil rig.
” Is it the one Ian is on?” she added, ” It looks pretty serious, there are helicopters and rescue attempts !”
All of this went in one ear and out the other, as I balanced the phone on my shoulder and tried to brush the knots out of Louisa’s hair.
‘My Mother always got the wrong end of the stick,’ I reasoned to myself, everything was always a drama.
And so I said I would have a look and that I really had to go. I told her I would phone later and we could have a proper chat, but now I was really busy, I had to take Chris to work and Louisa to school and I was running late. Then the telephone rang again. This time it was my best friend, Esther, who lived a couple of miles away in Kemnay. We used to live next door to her and we had become very close.
” Is Ian home ?” she casually enquired and when I said,
” No, he comes home today” she calmly, but very carefully said,
” Well, switch on the TV now and sit down and, if you need me, I will come straight over. There has been a huge explosion on Piper”
And that was it ! As simple as that !
I turned on the TV and it was full of it. Full of shots of helicopters landing at Aberdeen. Of flames covering the sea and of grim-faced presenters, speculating on the number of fatalities. Harrowing scenes of huddled, bewildered figures, their faces etched with horror and streaked with grime, wrapped in silver-foil, survival blankets. A disaster movie being played out, in real life, on breakfast TV.
I stared at the screen. I felt numb and couldn’t take it in.
It wasn’t happening; it wasn’t that serious ! I would have heard about it before now. Been officially informed. Someone from Occidental would have phoned me.
I was suddenly aware of Chris, my son, entering the room and asking if anything was wrong and this brought me out of my trance. I remembered that poor Esther was still hanging on the phone, so I thanked her and hung up. Then I returned to the morning’s preparations, bustling about and urging the kids to,
” Hurry up !!”
But something inside me would not settle. I picked up the phone, once more and dialled the number for Occidental’s offices in Aberdeen. They would know what was happening; they would tell me that everything was okay.
On Piper Alpha, of the 226 men on board, approximately 80% were ‘contract’ workers, employed by various companies within the industry. But Ian was employed directly by the owner/operators of the oil platform, Occidental Oil Company. They were an an American company, based in Bakersfield, California, but had a huge office building and head-quarters in Bridge of Don, near Aberdeen.
So, I phoned them and, of course, the number was engaged. Looking back, I should imagine their switchboard was completely jammed with anxious relatives, oil executives and the press and media from around the World. But I was in denial at the time and also in a state of shock, so I didn’t think of that. I became angry and frustrated and bustled the kids, roughly, into the car. I would take Chris to work; it would all be alright. I put on a brave face but I was increasingly having to fight back a feeling of panic, nausea and impending doom.
I have no idea why I took Chris to work, that day. Perhaps it was because the routine was comforting. Perhaps because I was trying to shield him from unpleasant events or to give him something to occupy his mind …. I really don’t know. But I think it was because I didn’t know what else to do.
On my return I, once again, tried to get through to Occidental and, this time, I succeeded. The girl at reception could tell me nothing, so I demanded to be put through to someone who could help. And they could tell me nothing, either. They only had very sketchy information. There were very few survivors. That was all they knew, I would have to phone back. And, at that moment, it hit me; I began to shake and I knew that I would not be taking Louisa to school, I was too upset to drive.
The phone kept ringing. …………….Each time it was friends or family and I could give them no information. I felt completely helpless.
I phoned Occidental again. This time I was told that they didn’t have Ian’s name on any list of survivors. However, a group of 10 men had been picked up by a standby vessel, the ‘Silver Pit’ and were now being transported, by helicopter, to Aberdeen. He could be among those survivors and Occidental said that they would phone me as soon as they knew. And so, I waited …. and waited.
Finally, the phone rang at approximately 11.00 and a faltering voice said,
” Soni ?”
It was Ian ! He was safe and was at Foresterhill Hospital, Aberdeen. And he was uninjured; physically, at least. Apparently, after they had been picked up by the ship, they had spent the rest of the night on board and been transferred to a support barge, the “Tharos”, as soon as it was daylight. From there they had been flown by helicopter, straight to the hospital, to be examined and treated for any injuries. Now, the ones who were fit enough, were being taken to the Skean Dhu hotel at Dyce. This was, presumably, to avoid congestion at Foresterhill.
The entrance to the Skean Dhu was swamped with people. Cameras were set up on the steps and media people skulked around, pushing microphones and close-up lenses into the faces of anyone who entered or exited.
I left Louisa in the car, I had no idea what sort of a “circus” lay waiting, inside. She didn’t need to see this.
The foyer of the hotel was unusually hushed; the staff more deferential than usual. The ballroom was also quiet, everyone speaking in whispers. Police officers were talking to people who were standing around in little, stunned, groups and I noticed a huge pile of clothing, heaped in the centre of the room. And then I saw Ian, in brand new overalls, face grey and drawn beneath the grime. Wordlessly, we hugged and made to leave, but were stopped at the door. It appeared that the police had not finished interviewing everyone …. I think our body language indicated that, as far as we were concerned, they had !
We pushed through the crowd and out into the foyer to face the gang of reporters on the steps. Microphones were held up and the journalists began to ask questions; Ian’s face resembled that of a hunted animal. Taking a deep breath, I pushed forward, held up my hand and shouted,
” NO !!” and the Press cleared out of our way.
On the way home, Ian kept repeating the story of the night’s events, over and over and it was clear that he was far from “okay”.
Also, he kept telling me that he had been trying to telephone me, but, because he had no cash on him, the staff of the hotel would nor let him use the phone. He had to demand to speak to the Manager, before the staff acquiesced.
We had a cuppa and I ran him a bath and got out fresh clothes. He was shaking and very pale and I was reluctant to leave him alone.
While he was bathing, visitors arrived in the form of two policemen. They had been sent to let me know about the explosion and to reassure me that my husband was one of the survivors. I told them that he was actually upstairs, taking a bath and they then asked if they could stay and interview him, but I refused to allow that; he was in no state for questions, so I told them that they would have to return at another time.
During the evening Ian swithered between tears and vivid recollections and, although I tried to switch it off, he stared at the TV and shook violently whenever the news coverage mentioned Piper A. And the damn phone kept ringing and ringing.
Early the next morning, Esther phoned to tell me that the local newspaper had printed the names and addresses of all the survivors. I happened to be near the sitting room window and I casually glanced out and shuddered. We lived just outside the tiny village of Monymusk, miles from anywhere, on a very narrow minor road. In fact, the road was so narrow that it had ‘passing places’.
There was a passing place opposite the house and there was a car parked in it and the eyes of the occupants were trained on our house !
And so, Esther and her husband, Mervyn, came to our rescue and we spent most of the day at their home, far away from the prying eyes of the public and the ever-present media. I will always be grateful for their intervention, because Mervyn sat with Ian and listened, over and over, to Ian’s story, Esther kept the tea and sandwiches flowing and I didn’t feel quite so helpless. And all the while the news kept churning out its terrible tale, as the full horror of the night before unfolded. ….
Of 226 men on board Piper A, 167 were lost ( 2 were rescuers, killed when their tiny vessel drifted under the burning oil platform and was engulfed in a huge fireball)…………
61 survivors (only 6 of which were Occidental employees)………..
The platform was totally destroyed, the well-heads and gas lines were burning out of control and it eventually took the expertise of Red Adair and his team to extinguish the fire, three weeks later.
The police came to interview Ian that evening and, once again, I observed how distressed Ian became. I had no idea how to cope with this, it was something serious, something frightening.
The weekend came and Ian was increasingly withdrawn, but strangely restless. We showed Afghan Hounds as a hobby and were due to be at a show on Sunday. I didn’t mention it, but felt we needed to do something, so when Ian noticed the date marked on the calendar, I asked if he felt up to attending.
Ian was keen to get out of the house, but sat, silently, as I drove. The road took us alongside the coast and he became very agitated and upset. He had always loved the sea, but now the sight of it terrified him and I suggested that we should return home, but he just shook his head as tears rolled down his cheeks. And I was helpless once again.
The show passed without Ian saying a word. Friends and fellow exhibitors were very kind and left him alone with his thoughts. Even when our puppy, Joe, won Best Puppy in Show, Ian still didn’t react and on the way home, he kept saying that he felt guilty because he had been out “enjoying” himself, when so many had died.
He insisted on going into the office on the Monday morning; well…… he had not been told otherwise. Occidental had not been in touch and he had no idea what was required of him.
He only lasted half a day before someone from Occidental telephoned me. Could I please get a taxi over to Aberdeen, Ian wanted to come home but was unable to drive.
Apparently, when he arrived at the headquarters, he had been ushered into a room. This was the “incident room” and the walls were covered with huge photos of the accident; almost minute by minute, in vivid colour and detail. Photos of bodies and lists of the missing and dead were also on display. This was when Ian finally had a breakdown.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not really recognised in the UK before Piper A. Soldiers had ‘shell shock’ and any mental illness was regarded as a “lack of moral fibre” and to mention it was definitely taboo. But Occidental was an American company and, luckily, things were different there.
Along with the acceptance of PTSD, the Americans also had a huge ‘compensation’ culture and so we suddenly found ourselves caught up in all of that. But, before anything could be agreed, there had to be guidelines laid down for the British courts …. and what a circus that became.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself !
First I had to get Ian to the local GP because, believe it or not, Occidental insisted on “sick notes” to excuse Ian from work.
Our GP was very understanding and prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills, but was completely out of his depth when it came to any treatments. He had never encountered anything like this. He did, however, advise us to consult our solicitor …. Hah ! We didn’t even HAVE a solicitor.
The first one we contacted could not act for us as he was representing Occidental, but he gave us the name of another and so it began…………………..
Every day we were bombarded with newspaper stories and TV reports about Piper, but we were able to turn off the TV and stop taking the newspapers. What was more difficult to ignore, was the brown envelope that plopped onto the mat, almost daily.
Bodies were still being recovered from the sea, although at this point there were still many missing and, as I was still to learn, some that would never be found.
Occidental, in their wisdom, decided that it would be a good idea to send a notification of every body that was found and identified. This was a source of great distress for Ian, because he insisted on reading every letter. On top of that, our house became a ‘tourist attraction’. Cars parked daily in the ‘passing place”‘ and people got out and photographed the house.
Unbelievably, I discovered that the local tour buses were diverting down our narrow road, so that the drivers could point out the “home of a Piper Alpha survivor” to the visiting tourists. I don’t know what they expected to see; someone horribly burned, I expect. Ghouls, all of them. People at their worst.
And the fact that he had suffered no burns was something that Ian felt the most guilt about. To the outsider, he was unharmed. Apart from a few cuts and bruises, he had been physically unhurt. Many of the survivors were badly burned and I have heard that they were better able to cope than those whose scars were mental. I don’t know if that is true, I can only speak about what I know, but I am sure that Ian would have felt better if he had visible scars.
Our solicitor began the lengthy compensation claim. this was not something that we instigated, we had not even thought about it. Back in those innocent days before the ‘Personal Injury Claim’ adverts you just got on with things, no-one expected compensation.
However, Occidental was going to take full responsibility and compensate the survivors and the bereaved families. Of course, we now know that, after the Cullen Inquiry, another company was found guilty of negligence and Oxy took them to court to make a counter-claim for all they had paid out. Nevertheless, despite this acceptance of culpability, Ian still had to jump through hoops to prove that he really was suffering from PTSD.
He was now seeing a psychiatrist each week, especially after another incident at Oxy’s offices. A colleague decided to book Ian on a helicopter flight to go out to see what was left of Piper (which was very little). The guy thought that it would “bring Ian to his senses”, Thankfully Ian didn’t go !
Our solicitor wanted Ian to be assessed by a Consultant and so we travelled to Glasgow, to Gartnaval Hospital, where Ian was put through an extensive examination and a series of tests. The results were quite horrifying and I think that Oxy didn’t like that at all, because they asked for a second opinion and sent us down to Northampton, to St. Andrew’s.
This was a really scary experience. It was a “secure” mental hospital, like something out of a Stephen King novel, with huge, barred and locked doors and clanking keys on chains. And, unsurprisingly, the results were even worse.
Each time Ian was examined, I had to be interviewed by the psychiatrist, too. Apparently, I was “helping” them with their understanding of PTSD. Giving them a valuable insight into what it was like to live with someone who had that mental illness. Many of my responses are now in medical text-books but, at the time, it was all so new to the psychiatrists here, all they had to work with were some notes and guidelines that had been sent over from America.
And so I told them everything that I had observed. I described how Ian would be restless and ask to go out, but that, when we were out, he wanted to return home. How he would rush out across a busy road, ignoring traffic,because he thought he saw a colleague, who had, in reality, perished in the fire. I told of his nightmares and violent dreams, of the lashing out and shouting. Of sleepwalking and wandering around like a ghost. Of long bouts of crying and overwhelming sadness and of sitting silently, as though in some sort of trance. I said that it was like dealing with a willful toddler, but a toddler that had the size and strength of an adult. It was a situation that I would not wish on my own worst enemy. Many survivor’s marriages and relationships had broken up. Ours survived, but sometimes it was difficult……………very difficult.
And all the time the insensitivity continued………….
The newspapers seemed incapable of printing anything else. The TV seemed to show graphic video footage almost ‘on a loop’. And we continued to be treated like exhibits in a fairground ‘freak show’.
Even Louisa suffered at school when the Scottish children began to bully and taunt her, saying that they wished her dad had died because he was English. I know that most Scottish people are not racist, but it is difficult to see your child in tears each day.
The Cullen Inquiry was another ordeal to be endured………. Once again we were flung into the glare of the media, as every survivor had to give evidence and were also afforded the chance to ‘have their say’
Lord Cullen was a lovely man and allowed the survivors to sit while in the witness box. He also allowed wives or a chosen companion to accompany them and I held Ian’s hand as he falteringly gave his evidence. He broke down at one point and had to be given a few minutes to recover his composure, before returning to the box to give his personal comments.
He said that he thought ‘Tharos’…….., which was a huge Support/Firefighting vessel,……. was the “biggest white elephant in the North Sea” because it had been totally ineffective on the night of July 6th. His comment was picked up by the media and reported widely and, once again, we were in the spotlight and Ian receded more deeply into his shell.
The mind plays funny tricks and the ‘sightings’ of dead colleagues continued. Ian had returned to his old hobby of fishing, but kept wading out to ‘talk’ to imaginary people, that turned out to be overhanging branches or trees on the opposite riverbank. This was exacerbated in late 1988, when the accommodation module was finally lifted from the sea-bed, where it had fallen on that awful night. 87 bodies were recovered and 87 families were finally able to say ” Goodbye”.
People deal with trauma and tragedy in different ways. Some of the survivors who lived fairly locally, formed a Support Group and this also included any bereaved families. I think many of them found comfort there and were able to feel a sense of cameraderie. Ian tried it a couple of times and I accompanied him, but it was not what he was looking for and actually set him back, mentally.
The constant spotlight was beginning to take its toll and a sort of ‘social divide’ was also rearing its head. Because we lived so close to Aberdeen; the centre of any Piper-related events, we could not escape attention and we found people began to treat us differently. Maybe they simply didn’t know what to say. Perhaps it was a type of embarrassment, a worry that they may do or say the wrong thing; I don’t know. But even some close friends began to abandon us. The media did not help matters, either………… Speculation about compensation payments was rife and huge sums were being bandied about and so, I suppose, jealousy played a large part, too. Of course, the figures were all greatly exaggerated, but if it was ‘in the papers’, it must be true !
By the middle of 1989 to 1990 Ian was treated almost like an outcast by Oxy. They had moved on. The recovery of all bodies had long been completed and the remains of Piper Alpha, which had been considered a danger to shipping, had been destroyed by a controlled explosion. Now, Ian and the five other Oxy survivors, were more or less an embarrassment; a constant reminder of a costly incident.
In the cold, hard oil industry it all comes down to dollars and cents. It was obvious that, to give Ian a chance to begin to recover, we had to move away. We had to get out of the ‘goldfish bowl’. So, thanks to the compensation payment, which was finally agreed in 1991, we were able to move to a little village near York. At last we could find a little peace and precious anonymity.
PTSD never goes away, it just recedes a little and the tiniest thing can bring it rushing back into focus.
We had been living in Yorkshire for about 18 months when Ian was summoned to give evidence at a hearing in Edinburgh. Occidental was taking court action against the company that had been named in the Cullen Inquiry and, as Ian had spoken out against the support vessel, ‘Tharos’ and criticised some of Oxy’s safety procedures, he was asked to testify against them. Awkward, indeed. And, of course, it brought back all the old fears and feelings.
One of the things that helped Ian the most was the companionship of our dogs. He spent a lot of time with them, with no fear of being treated differently. To them, he was just ‘Dad’. We attended many dog shows too, and, although a few people were aware of Piper, the dogs were the centre of attention, people watched them, not Ian. I am very grateful to all our ‘dog show’ friends, they helped to bring a little normality into our lives.
And twenty seven years on …………?
Well, Ian still has nightmares. Sometimes very violent and loud. And there are aspects of his life that have been affected, permanently. But we take each day as it arrives and Piper is rarely mentioned. We now live a boring, anonymous life …. thank goodness.
Only a few friends know about Piper and I’m sure that most of them have forgotten all about it. New neighbours and friends have no idea about it and I am only being allowed to write this because, although it will go out into the World via the internet, we will still remain practically unknown. The events on the night of July 6th 1988 were terrible and lives were changed forever, but we didn’t let it destroy us. We saw it through, as a family. Christopher and Louisa became fiercely protective of their father and I’m sure that helped to mould them into the kind, caring adults that they are today. I am proud of my family and especially proud of my brave husband, Ian.
And, for those who wish to know, here is a brief account of his experiences on that fateful night.
I am not using any names of others who were involved as I have not sought their permission.
THE NIGHT OF JULY 6th 1988.
Ian was working the night shift when the first explosion occurred. He was in a small office which was attached to the Workshop. The explosion caused the walls to cave in and the ceiling collapsed on top of him, burying him and a co-worker with debris.
They battled through the rubble and got into the Workshop and managed to get out of the door and make their way up some stairs to the Control room. Fires had already started and they intended to go through the Control room to the Fire pumps. However, the Control room was almost completely destroyed and totally impassable. Ian saw that one of his best friends had been injured and was in a dazed state, so he helped him stand and guided him down the stairs and found a relatively safe place at one of the corners of the platform.
He left his friend in the safe place while he went to assess the situation. There was fire and smoke everywhere and, although the lifeboats were a mere 10 yards away, it was impossible to reach them because of the flames. Ian returned to the corner and opened a Survival box that was situated in the area, took out a life-jacket and put it on his injured friend. Then they tried to get down to a lower level, but this, too, was impassable.
It was expected that, in an emergency, the fire and support barge ‘Tharos’ would move closer and train its hoses on any fire, but this did not happen, The barge was slow and unwieldy and completely ineffective.
Ian and his pal returned to the corner to find that a few more men had gathered there, it was fast becoming the only safe place. They threw a life-raft pod into the water, but it failed to inflate.
The situation was becoming more urgent and dangerous; huge sparks , flames and acrid, black smoke filled the air and it was becoming difficult to breathe. There was a knotted rope in the survival box and, when another explosion rocked the platform, they decided that the rope was their only way of escape. One chap went down first, to secure it at the bottom and then they all made their way down to the 20ft level. Ian had to almost carry his friend as his shoulder was injured, he later learned that it was broken.
They were now on a grated walkway and the fire was raging overhead. Luckily, they were spotted by men in an inflatable Zodiac. The rescuers steered the small craft in as close as they dared and the men jumped into it, one by one, as a huge explosion and fireball engulfed the platform.
All around them huge pieces of burning debris splashed into the sea and bodies too, of men so desperate to escape that they chose to jump from the helideck, 140 feet in the air. Unbelievably, many survived such a drop. Ian and the others were taken to a Standby boat, the ‘Silver Pit’, which was, basically, a converted trawler.
The ‘Silver Pit’ began to search for more survivors and Ian stayed on deck, helping to pull people from the water. The sea was now covered in a deadly blanket of burning oil. Then the engines of the vessel failed and, to their horror, they began to drift back towards the burning platform. The ship got so close to the blaze that an inflatable dinghy that was stowed on the deck, began to melt. Ian, who was an engineer and another guy, went below and worked furiously to restore the engines and, in the nick of time, they were able to pull back to a safer distance.
Ian saw sights that night, that no-one should ever see. Bodies of men, blackened by fire, floating in the sea. Colleagues, melting like candles, trapped in the searing heat of the stricken platform and the distressing experience of helping to pull a French diver out of the sea. This man was so badly burned and injured and calling, in French, for water. But they were unable to offer him any as it was obvious, from his injuries, that he could not drink. The poor soul died, a few days later, in Aberdeen hospital. ………..The final fatality of the Piper Alpha disaster.