DEF column strip
DEF column strip

July 6, 1988, 120 miles north-east of Scotland, stood the Piper Alpha oil rig. At 14,000 tons, and two-and-a-half times the height of the Statue of Liberty, it was one of the largest rigs in the world. "Piper Alpha was the world's most successive oil rig. What this means is that in a single day Piper Alpha produced more barrels of oil than any other rig or oil platform in the world", says Stephen McGinty, author of "Fire in the Night."

A crew of 226 rotate shifts to keep the oil and gas flowing. At 9:45pm, the chief control room operator suddenly hears an alarm, indicating that one of the two pumps went out-of-operation. Attempts to have it restarted failed. The other pump was "off duty" on maintenance. A note was left by the engineer of the previous shift advising that the "off duty" pump should not be turned on under any circumstances. Rather than risk a full shutdown of production and a power failure, and not being made aware of the note from the engineer, the shift custodian took a decision to "call out" the "off duty" pump into action. No one seems to have remembered that the safety valve on the "off duty" pump was removed during maintenance. Rushing it back into production without a thorough inspection, thousands of cubic feet of gas escaped into the ambient atmosphere. At 9:55pm, disaster struck! As Murphy's Law would have it, a spark ignites the escaping condensate and an explosion rips through the rig. Confronted by 700 degree flames, most of the 226 crew are either dead or severely injured. "This was a cross between a sinking Titanic and a floating inferno", says McGinty. For crew members still alive, and mobile, a decision had to be made quickly to either burn in the inferno or jump into the frigid North Sea for the 120-mile swim home. "All hell was breaking loose on that night. It was a scene of absolute carnage and hell. Flames, explosions, debris. Things were escalating so fast at that point it was almost impossible to take things in", said Charles Haffy, a rescuer.

Even with heroic efforts by rescuers and fire fighters, two hours later, the Piper Alpha began sliding into the sea.

"Part of the platform remained and the other part just kept drifting into the sea. Three-quarters of the platform just slowly fell into the North Sea. That was my worst memory for the night because I knew that for people who were still on it, they would have gone to the bottom of the sea", said Geoff Bollands, eyewitness.

More than 70% of the crew perished. A total of 167 men lost their lives that night. Thirty bodies were never recovered. Property damage was estimated at £1.7 billion. Operator of the rig, the Occidental Petroleum Corporation paid out £180 million in compensation to survivors and victims' families.

So why are we telling this story? Obviously, the story is not a tale; it's real. It is about the cost of human error. It is about the absence or poor communication of an emergency plan. It is about current hazards just "hanging out on the block" waiting to hit you, your investments and those to whom you owe a duty of care. It is about the falsehood of trusting exclusively in your insurance coverage to indemnify your loss.

Emergency response planning and management can make so much difference in how you deliver on all those responsibilities and expectations which go along with your corporate stewardship. Expanding the base and extending the perimeter of your occupational safety and health footprint can make so much difference in your own Piper Alpha experience. The question is not "if" you will have a major disaster interrupting your delivery of products and services. Rather, it is "what have I done or am doing to avert a 'sinking Titanic or floating inferno?'"

Currently, very few comply with the statutory volume limits on storage of gasoline and diesel for personal or corporate uses. The Noxious and Dangerous Substances (Control) Act, Chap. 40:09 sets the limits at 40 and 50 gallons respectively. "Why so low?" one may ask. It's because of the minimum temperature at which these fuels can ignite, and the temperature at which auto-ignition will occur. In the Caribbean, both temperatures are reached regularly and, with improper storage and ventilation, an Alpha Piper can occur right here in Dominica or St. Kitts or Jamaica. TOSHID will soon market a certification course on emergency response planning and management for private sector personnel.