Piper Alpha was a large fixed platform on the Piper oilfield 193km north-east of Aberdeen. It produced crude oil and was later converted to gas production from 24 wells, via subsea pipeline to the Flotta oil terminal on Orkney.
The conversion from oil to gas was thought to have played a key role in the disaster of 6 July 1988. Because the platform was originally built for oil, the firewalls could resist fire but not explosions. A leaking gas valve, which had not been properly sealed, created a fire that was in turn fed fresh fuel from ruptured pipework connecting the adjoining Tartan and Claymore platforms.
A massive fireball engulfed Piper Alpha – machinery and steelwork melted and evacuation by safety vessels and helicopters became impossible. The fireproofed accommodation block, with workers trapped inside, and the rest of the platform slid into the sea.
Piper Alpha was – and still is – the world’s worst offshore oil disaster. Of the 226 people on the platform, 165 died, two rescue workers perished, and 30 bodies have never been recovered.
In November 1988, the Cullen Enquiry was set up to establish what had caused the Piper Alpha disaster. It made over 100 recommendations for changes to improve safety procedures in the North Sea.
The Piper Alpha memorial sculpture can be seen in the Rose Garden in Hazlehead Park, Aberdeen. The oil industry Chapel, St. Nicholas' Kirk, Aberdeen, includes a stained-glass Piper Alpha Memorial Window