30 years ago, 167 workers lost their lives on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea. Some bodies were never recovered. Countless other lives were changed forever. The industry should have been shocked and shamed into changing its ways that night, to put the safety of its workers first.
The subsequent Cullen Inquiry ruled that the explosion, and the resulting oil and gas fires, were caused by inadequate maintenance and safety procedures by the operator Occidental. Like Grenfell Tower, the choices made by the companies involved, that led to untold human misery, were driven by their prioritisation of cost cutting and profiteering.
The Offshore unions have stated that the UK Oil and Gas Industry has learned little from Piper Alpha, with much of the progress made over the past 30 years being slowly but surely stripped away as the never-ending pursuit of corner-cutting and cost-savings takes priority. In a recent blog to mark this anniversary, Unite the Union’s Pat Rafferty shares the story of a young man who was working off-shore the night the tragedy took place. He has grave concerns about the health & safety practice in the industry today and fears a second Piper Alpha is a looming reality.
It is greatly encouraging that Unite the Union’s members on the Alwyn, Dunbar and Elgin platforms are due to begin strike action later this month, fighting back against unsafe changes to their working practices and hours. It comes at a poignant time, and I am sure those 167 lives will not be far from their minds.
Former offshore worker Henry Cairney, who lost close friends on Piper Alpha, penned this poem about the disaster and he has asked that we share it:
The morning air was crisp and clear, today’s shift change was drawing near,
Some worked below, some rose on high, both shall meet soon eye to eye,
One thinking of the day ahead, another thinks of going to bed,
Yes here they are, men one and all, soon some will live and some will fall.
All quiet at the breakfast table, some wonder one day if they’re able,
To leave this way of life for good, and elevate above this mood,
Of sometimes joy, and sometimes pain, walking out in freezing rain,
To trudge down steps and start the toil, and raise this nation’s bloody oil.
The day has past, he thinks with pride, and climbs once more the monster’s side,
To mingle with the off-shift crew, relax, before it starts anew.
He feeds, showers, and settles down, to another night in this little town,
If only he could see through time, he’d know, he’ll never reach his prime.
He’s heard the rumble from down below, the flickering lights give an eerie glow,
And stumbling forward to the door, with fear that strikes him to the core,
His cries that join a chorus loud, came from a man once tall and proud,
His fate decided, a final story, of a life which could have reaped more glory.
Heart beating, on and one he’ll blunder, whilst all around it sounds like thunder,
And finally reaching a hopeful crowd, relief and comfort, he cried aloud,
He’ll never know this ray of hope, was suspended from a lighted rope,
His judgement clouded within the mire, that would be engulfed by Satan’s fire.
Outside the haven, a second blast, has meant that hope is fading fast,
To rescue all aboard this structure, a body now that’s set to puncture,
A small proportion flee and wonder, why all this could have come asunder,
Reflecting in evening gloom, they’ll witness and, record this doom.
A boat, a plane, a chopper came, all with a goal, which was the same,
To raise some hope when all seems lost, before statistics count the cost,
The crisis grows tho’ helps at hand, to transport some, back to the land,
Decisions now mean life and death, the choice of course could mean last breath.
One man laughed, a second cried, and very close another died,
Oh Lord please aid this stricken crowd, one cried from the clothes, his burning shroud,
A friend, a foe, it matters nought, we stumbled forward, more shelter sought,
But not tonight my friend, alas, you face the wall, you shall not pass.
The flames are gaining, never stopped, by puny water, the pump’s are blocked,
A safety vessel that cost so dear, the captain decided he would not come near,
Watching and waiting, for God knows why, first to suffer, and then to die,
The cards are dealt, one by one, as the smoke thickens with the dying sun.
A second blast engulfs the members, the odds diminish with the dying embers,
Those in the haven we fear the most, to Jones’s locker, they all are lost,
Confusion reigns, as demons fed, with pressured gas, where no one led,
To cut the fuel, on their opinion, clearly wrong, tyrant domination.
The aftermath, a clear bright day, a sight so awful, to all, dismay,
They gaze upon the shattered shell, some look, but most they cannot dwell,
The dragons breath still lingers still, a knight required to end the kill,
And finish once for all this game, of chess, lost, in deepest shame.
The few that made it back to shore, will grieve this day forever more,
A shrine that pours our heartfelt pity, stands within the Granite city,
Inquiry, courts, and legal battle, now fuel the Scots with bickering prattle,
But ne’er forget, it is too soon, the lonely, haunting, Piper’s Tune.