6th July 1988

Piper Alpha oil platform is destroyed by fire

The Piper Alpha oil platform was destroyed by an explosion and subsequent fire that resulted in the deaths of 167 workers. A further 61 escaped, but 30 bodies of the dead were never recovered.

The platform was situated 120 miles from Aberdeen, in the Piper oil field, which had been discovered in 1973. The platform was positioned on the field in 1975, stood in 144m of water, and had been operational since 1976.

Pressure build-up

The disaster occurred when gas pressure built up in a pump that had been partially dismantled for maintenance, escaped and ignited. This blew a hole in the wall of the control room, which had to be abandoned. This meant that nobody was able to activate the fire suppression system manually.

Many of the workers were unable to get to the lifeboats because of the fire, and its smoke prevented helicopters from landing, so the injured retreated to the fireproof crew quarters. Worse, as Piper Alpha was connected to other oil platforms, which continued pumping, the fire had a steady source of fuel to draw on. Rescue crews told the media that they were able to feel the heat from over a mile away.

Platform blown apart

The front page of the Aberdeen Press and Journal on 7 July ran the headline “Piper Alpha platform blown apart” and speculated that it could be the world’s worst oil rig disaster. “Rescuers last night described the platform as a ‘raging inferno’ and coastguards spoke of bodies floating in the sea one-and-a-half miles away. Many of the survivors were flown into Aberdeen Royal Infirmary this morning with severe burns. Some were picked up from the water by a fleet of rescue helicopters who converged on the scene after the blast.”

That evening, the Aberdeen Evening Express had further details: “rescuers told of men scrambling for their lives across red hot melting metal and of flames shooting 350ft in the air… many of the victims are thought to have perished asleep in their beds.”

Structure melted

Further explosions caused significant damage, and the temperature rose so much that the structure started to melt, parts broke off, and the accommodation unit, in which around 100 crew members were still sheltering, fell almost 200ft into the sea. Less than three hours after the fire had broken out, the whole platform had been destroyed.



Other events that occured in July

FREE Scotland history newsletter

Don't miss our weekly update on Scotland's fascinating history. We promise never to sell your data to anyone else, and there's a super-easy unsubscribe link on the bottom of each email so you can leave whenever you want.