The Worst Offshore Oil Rig Disaster in History

The 1988 accident at the Piper Alpha, a British natural gas and oil platform situated in the North Sea, was the deadliest event in the history of the offshore energy industry. It is important for people who work on offshore rigs to be familiar with that tragedy and to know that if they are ever involved in a similar occurrence, even if it is on a much smaller scale, they should seek a maritime attorney — an oil rig accident attorney in particular. In the United States, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, popularly known as the Jones Act, entitles offshore employees to damages from negligent employers. Indeed, a reputable Jones Act lawyer will know precisely how to earn for you all of the money that you’re owed. Of the 226 people who were working on the Piper Alpha on the evening of July 6, 1988, 165 died; they perished within 22 minutes of the first explosion. Two crew members of the Sandhaven, a vessel stationed near this rig, were killed as well. Additionally, the accident obliterated the Piper Alpha, causing approximately $3.4 billion in property damage. The Occidental Petroleum Corporation, which is based in California, owned the Piper Alpha. McDermott Engineering built one section of this platform in Ardersier, Scotland, and User Interface Engineering constructed the other section in Cherbourg, France. The two sections were then combined in Ardersier. When completed, the Piper Alpha stood 984 feet tall and included four main work areas with firewalls between them. This rig began extracting oil from 36 separate wells at the Piper oilfield in 1976. Capable of producing 300,000 barrels of crude oil every day, the Piper Alpha was responsible for about 10 percent of the natural petroleum that the UK produced. And during the early 1980s, it was modified so that it could also produce gas. A chain of missteps led to the 1988 explosions. On the day of the accident, members of the platform’s maintenance crew removed a condensate pump’s safety valve as part of their routine duties. They did not finish this maintenance project during their daytime shift, however. Thus, they decided to use a blind flange to seal a condensate pipe that was open, and one of the engineers filled out a form to alert the night team that this pump could not be used. That night, however, a crew member turned on this pump, not realizing that he was supposed to leave it alone. Consequently, gas leaked and led to a series of explosions. A fire quickly broke out, and the leaking gas became fuel for that fire. Worse still, the platform’s automatic fire-dousing system had been shut off because some of the seamen were working underwater. Making matters even more horrific, when rescue helicopters arrived, the massive amounts of smoke and the intense heat prevented them from fighting the flames as efficiently as they might have. In fact, it took three weeks for authorities to be able to fully contain this fire. Beginning in November 1988, Lord William Cullen, a Scottish jurist, led the official government investigation into the Alpha Piper accident. Lord Cullen’s team first delved into the disaster’s causes, and then they began formulating safety instructions to prevent similar events from occurring in the future. The group’s report on this incident was issued in November 1990, and it made more than 100 recommendations for new safety measures for the North Sea’s offshore energy industry. For instance, the report concluded that all rigs in the area should be equipped with valves that shut off automatically in the event of a fire.