The 1988 North Sea explosion remains the deadliest offshore oil rig disaster of all time
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2010
Shortly before 10 p.m. on July 6, 1988, natural gas leaking from a pump being serviced on the Piper Alpha oil production platform, located in the North Sea about 120 miles off the coast of Scotland, ignited and exploded, blowing through a firewall and causing crew members to abandon the platform’s control center. About 20 minutes later, a line feeding gas to the Piper Alpha from the Tartan, another gas platform nearby, burst, and a fireball engulfed the rig. A second gas line from the platform Claymore ruptured minutes later, further feeding the fire. As the explosions continued, a large portion of the platform collapsed.
In the aftermath, 165 Piper Alpha crewmen died, as did two members of the crew of a rescue craft launched by the standby vessel Sandhaven. Only 59 of the platform’s crew survived, mostly by jumping from as high as 200 feet (61 meters) from the platform into the sea. Thirty bodies were never recovered.
The Piper Alpha, run by Occidental Petroeum (Caledonia) Ltd., went into operation as an oil platform in 1976 and was later converted to gas production. At the time of the explosion and fire, it was producing about 10 percent of the North Sea oil and gas, according to an article published in the British newspaper The Times on July 4, 2008.
The Times also noted that it took the legendary Red Adair and his team three weeks to extinguish the fire, which resulted in what the paper reported as a $1.4 billion insurance loss to Lloyd’s of London. According to The New York Times, Adair "had warned of a fire disaster sooner or later in the North Sea after capping a fountain of oil from the Norwegian Ekofisk field in 1977 that produced a 1,500-square-mile [3,885-square-kilometer] slick."
On January 19, 1989, the Honorable Lord William Douglas Cullen began a public inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster that lasted 125 days. The final report, published in November 1990, established the cause of the disaster and made 106 recommendations for changes in safety procedures and management that were accepted and implemented by offshore drilling companies.
— Kathleen Robinson