Piper Alpha The Biggest Oilfield Catastrophe – Oilfield Incidents in The Past

Piper Alpha was basically a North Sea oil production platform, commencing production way back in 1976, run by Occidental Petroleum (Caledonia) Ltd, which initially started oil production and later gas production as well. Unfortunately, it was wrecked and demolished on 6 July 1988, by an explosion which triggered oil and gas fires. It resulted in a lot of destruction, including 167 casualties and only 67 men survived.

 

History of Piper Alpha

 

Occidental discovered The Piper Field in the beginning of 1973, following which Piper Alpha initiated production 3 years after. The platform was situated roughly 120 miles towards the north-east of Aberdeen. In the beginning, it only dealt in the production of oil however after a few years, in 1980 with new equipments being installed, gas production was facilitated. Piper Alpha was linked with the Flotta oil terminal on the Orkney Islands by a sub-sea pipeline that was further shared with Claymore platform. Gas pipelines of Piper Alpha linked it to Tartan platform and distinct MCP-O1 gas processing platform. In a nutshell, Piper Alpha had 4 prime transport risers: an oil export riser, the Tartan gas riser, the Claymore gas riser, & MCP-01 gas riser.

Situated around 120 miles north-east of Aberdeen in about 474 feet of water, Piper Alpha was a huge fixed platform inclusive of four modules with distinct firewalls, which was built by McDermott Engineering at Ardersier & UIE at Cherbourg, where the sections were united at Ardersier before tow out in 1975. The modules were placed out in a manner, which would keep any risky or hazardous functions at a good distance from places with personnel. However, this safety precaution was not complied with after gas production started when all the susceptible areas were situated in proximity to each other. The gas compression was located close to the control room that triggered the accident. Crude oil & natural gas was generated from 24 wells and was meant to be transported via 3 distinct pipelines to the Flotta oil terminal on Orkney and other installations. During the hour of the catastrophe, the most intense and heaviest functional platform in the North Sea was Piper along with Magnus & Brae B.

Explosion & Fire of Piper Alpha

A and B, were the two condensate-injection pumps, on which they started working from 06 July 1988. Before the gas was carried and delivered to Flotta, these condensate-injection pumps were utilized for compression of gas on the platform. After a pressure safety valve was extracted from A to facilitate recalibration & re-certification, and the couple of blind flanges were fixed into the pipes, the workers during the dayshift wrapped up.

Towards evening on the same day, pump B stumbled and hence the workers of the nightshift came to a prompt consensus that pump A might be functional again, and once that was done, gas condensate leaked from the two blind flanges. Around 10 p.m. that night, the gas caught fire and burst into flames causing substantial impairment and harm to various other areas with the further release of gas & oil. Almost about half an hour after that, there was a major dysfunction with the Tartan gas riser resulting in another ignition and detonation. At the end of it there was massive fire and the place had burst up in flames. At approximately, 10.50 p.m., there was a major failure in  MCP-01 gas riser due to which there was another catastrophe and similarly, there were various explosions around the place resulting in the final structural breakdown of almost the entire installation.

Due to these disastrous explosions, 167 men lost their lives which included two operators of a Fast Rescue Craft. The remaining 62 men managed to escape and survive by jumping into the sea from the high decks of the platform. In the following years, around 1988 to 1990, the two-part Cullen Inquiry had studied and established the origin and reasoning for the explosions. Recommendations were made for preventive future protocols and the offshore operators consented and implemented about 106 recommendations.

 

Contributing Factors of Explosion & Fire of Piper Alpha

 Gas and crude oil was persistently and incessantly pumped out by the Tartan & Claymore platforms, and due to management issues in the crew, this was not stopped in spite of knowledge about the harmful repercussions.

  • The chain of command collapsed and there was substantial communication gap to the crew.
  • Another thing that came up was, if or not there was enough time period for better evacuation at the time of the crisis. What actually happened was the people in the crew who were superior and were authorized to give commands for this emergency evacuation were already dead as there was a major blast in the control room as blast walls had not been installed. Further, the platforms which were situated in proximity to Tartan & Claymore went on with pumping gas and oil to Piper Alpha, and subsequently the pipeline cracked and burst due to extreme temperature of the second blast. The personnel thought they were not authorized to cease the production in spite of the apparent crisis.
  • The fire-walls which were present from the beginning had not been updated to blast walls after the major alterations in 1980.
  • About 20 days after this incident, the debris after the explosion was finally extinguished by a squad headed by firefighter Red Adair, in spite of the weather forecast of 80 mph winds & 70-foot waves. The area where almost about 100 crew members had used as a protection at the time of the calamity was retrieved from the sea bed towards the end of the year with 87 dead bodies.
  • The Lowland Cavalier, a diving support vessel which was in proximity to the place of the calamity stated and reported the first explosion just prior to 10 p.m., and around half an hour following the first explosion, the second one took place. Till the rescue helicopters arrived, combustion and fire resulted in flames as high as 100 meters, which could be spotted from about 100 km (120 km from the Maersk Highlander). About 37 out of 59 crew members were rescued by the Fast Rescue Craft MV Silver Pit; coxswain James Clark was later decorated with George Medal. Others who got the George Medal were Andrew Kiloh from Aberdeen, Charles Haffey from Methil, & James McNeill from Oban.
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