The first full account of the most tragic oil rig disaster in history, the human story behind it, and the true nature of its legacy.
July 6, 1988, began as a normal day on Piper Alpha, the biggest offshore oil rig on the North Sea. But just after 10:00 p.m., a series of explosions rocked the platform, and the inferno continued to burn for weeks. Of the 226 men working on the platform, 162 died, along with two of their would-be rescuers. Brad Matsen talked to the survivors and their families; to the rescue teams, firefighters, and hospital workers; and to other witnesses. Now he brings together the full story of the human error and corporate malfeasance behind this tragedy.
Here is a comprehensive account of the catastrophe, from the origins of the fires on the rig to the investigation into the causes of its demise to the pain it continues to cause the survivors and the families of the dead. Written with a novelist's sense of pace and eye for detail, it is a riveting, gut-wrenching saga, made even more timely and important in light of recent disasters.
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October 18, 2011
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Excerpt from Death and Oil by Brad Matsen
A few minutes before ten o'clock on the night of July 6, 1988, Bill Barron was in the cinema on Piper Alpha, Occidental Petroleum's champion oil rig 110 miles northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. He and a few other men were watching Caddyshack, a farce starring Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield. It was a golf movie. Golf was as central to the Scottish character as haggis, defiance, and whiskey, but everybody had already seen it at least once. Some of the men nodded off, tired after finishing their shifts. Barron was half asleep himself, huddled in the cinema out of boredom more than anything. A couple of the men were venting the tension of their workday by reciting punch lines along with the characters on the screen. When Rodney Dangerfield broke wind at a fancy dinner party, they tortured his words with an Aberdonian Doric brogue. "Whoa, did somebody step on a duck?"
The cinema was one of the concessions to comfort that publicity flaks for Occidental and the other oil companies liked to point out in interviews about life offshore. The room had theater seats just like the ones back in Aberdeen, with a video projection booth at the back of the room. The men were away from home for weeks at a time, subjected to the stresses of being surrounded by volatile, toxic chemistry, but they had hot showers, clean sheets, good food, and movies to make their days as bearable as possible. The message was that drilling the bottom of the ocean for oil was a technological challenge akin to taking a trip to the moon but that life aboard a rig was pretty good.
Bill Barron was drowsily watching Bill Murray whack the blossoms in a flower bed with a golf club when he picked up a faintly unfamiliar sensation. Usually, the air on Piper Alpha carried the slick fragrance of hydrocarbons and the constant noise of metal-to-metal torment of a dozen kinds, but you got used to it. Sometimes, when the wind shifted, or a big pump shut down, or a heavy load crashed from a crane hook to the deck, the sensory blend changed just enough to trigger an alarm in him. Barron remembered many moments during his ten years offshore when some distinct change in the smells and sounds of the rig urged him to flee. What he heard in the cinema was something new, a treble rumbling more visceral than audible. He sensed it for a few seconds, woke fully, and sagged back into the chair when it was gone.
Caddyshack had been showing on Piper Alpha for a week. Barron, who was not much of a golfer himself, absorbed the antics on the screen with the same stoic good humor he brought to most of the hours in his days. He was well- settled in himself as a working man who was grateful to have had a good job for most of his life. He did what he was getting paid for and led an essentially interior existence, with a demeanor that was perfectly suited for living well offshore. In the confined spaces of Piper Alpha, a man was better off taking up as little room as possible. Barron never ceased to be amazed that he could be eating a lamb chop for dinner, or enjoying the tropical fish in their tanks in the galley, or watching a movie with the world's biggest oil rig vibrating beneath him. He had gone outside for a few minutes after dinner and knew that the air was still and the sea calm. It was a beautiful evening in one of the most unlikely places in which a man might find himself, especially since the North Sea was usually a nightmare of rain, wind, and waves big enough to shake the rig like it was made of twigs instead of steel. Barron remembered storms so violent he was surprised to find himself still alive at dawn getting ready for another work day, nights when sleep was impossible against the howling and shuddering of gusts the men would all talk about in the morning. A hundred miles an hour. A hundred and ten. Waves big enough to wash through the upper decks carrying anything that wasn't bolted down into the dark sea below. As the painting boss, Barron knew every inch of Piper Alpha like no one else. Though he would always rather be at home in Aberdeen, he felt a sense of proprietorship about the rig that surprised him. It was, after all, just a giant machine absurdly plopped down in the middle of the ocean.
Piper Alpha was an awkward layer cake of steel on spindly legs that looked a lot like a gigantic moon lander from the Apollo missions. It had a bottom tier of four distinct aluminum modules--the wellhead; oil and gas separator pumps; gas compression pumps; and main power generators. Above these were the drilling derrick, a crane, and modules for storage, pressure tanks, and exhaust pipes. At the top of the rig were four tiers of crew accommodations that held a hundred and fifty sleeping cabins, a dining room, three game rooms, a library, the movie theater, and the administrative offices. The rig was seven hundred feet tall, four hundred and seventy- five feet of which were underwater, where the rig was anchored by steel and concrete to the seafloor.