"The first thing you do when you arrive on an offshore ((oil)) installation," the British author A. Alvarez wrote in a book on the subject in 1986, "is arrange how to get off it again in an emergency." For the 227 men aboard the Piper Alpha oil platform in the North Sea last week, there was no time for such procedures.
At 9:31 Wednesday evening, a piercing sound that one survivor described as "screaming like a banshee" -- presumed to be a pressurized natural-gas leak -- screeched through the 650-ft.-high structure, whose four massive metal feet were anchored in the sea bottom 475 ft. below the surface. Seconds later an explosion ripped the rig in two, enveloping it in a ball of flame and smoke. Miraculously, 63 crew members survived, some with severe burns, the majority with only minor injuries. But 166 died, including two rescuers. It was the worst disaster in the 25-year history of North Sea oil exploration.
Those who survived had a nightmarish choice: to jump as far as 150 ft. down into a fiery sea or face certain death on the disintegrating rig, located 120 miles off the coast of Scotland. "It was just bloody horrific," said Derek Ellington, 45, a rigger. "Two-thirds of that platform melted with the heat and disappeared." Recalling the scene from a hospital in the Scottish city of Aberdeen, Andy Mochan, 48, a superintendent on the rig, said, "It was fry or jump, so I jumped."
He was one of the lucky ones, able to react quickly; most of those who were sleeping or relaxing in their cabins had no chance at all. Rigger Tony Sinnett, 34, watched in horror from a rescue craft after his escape. "It was as if the platform had been hit by an atom bomb," he said. He recalled seeing * half a dozen men on the platform's helicopter deck "who seemed to be waving. But then the deck keeled over, and the men disappeared."
Emergency precautions were of no use. There were lifeboats aboard the rig, but there was no time to use them. An emergency-support vessel, the Tharos, was permanently anchored nearby to help out in just such a catastrophe. It aimed its fire hoses at the Piper Alpha but was forced to turn away as the explosions continued. Twenty-eight ships, including a seven-unit NATO naval force led by the U.S. destroyer Hayler, quickly assembled to take part in a rescue mission, as did Royal Air Force reconnaissance planes and helicopters.
The rig, which produced 140,000 bbl. of crude a day, along with natural gas, had been in operation since 1976 and was one of the oldest of the 123 fixed platforms in the British exploration area of the North Sea. Some experts cited equipment failure or metal fatigue as possible causes of the disaster. One widely held view was that there had been a leak in the natural-gas compression apparatus and that ignition had occurred through some kind of mechanical failure.