The judge who chaired the inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster has recalled the harrowing moment he stepped aboard the wreckage of the platform.
Lord Cullen of Whitekirk said it was a “dreadful” experience which vividly brought to life the horror of the world’s worst offshore disaster, which claimed the lives of 167 men nearly 25 years ago. He also revealed that he visited an accommodation block from the platform which was recovered from the bottom of the North Sea.
A series of massive explosions destroyed the Occidental-owned platform, 120-miles north-east of Aberdeen on July 6, 1988, at around 10pm. Only 62 men survived, many leaping 150ft into the sea to escape the inferno.
During the course of his inquiry, Lord Cullen, who had been a judge for only about three years, went aboard the Tharos, a semi-submersible firefighting, rescue and accommodation vessel, which drew alongside Piper Alpha on that fateful night.
From there he was able to clamber aboard the wrecked platform.
Lord Cullen said: “I walked up on to the main deck of Piper Alpha, the end where Christmas trees used to be – devices from which hydrocarbons passed. At that stage only a part of the platform still remained, the rest had gone.
“I remember the steel platform on which I walked had become an extraordinary shape because of the intense heat.
“Within an hour of the disaster beginning to unfold, three gas risers were ruptured and the contents of pipelines came shooting through the platform like three enormous Bunsen burners. Being there gave me a very uncomfortable feeling. It was so horrible – the whole sight of the place. Dreadful. I was so vividly reminded of what happened.”
Lord Cullen said the 25th anniversary of the disaster had brought back memories of the inquiry, one of the biggest challenges of his life.
“It brings back to my mind quite a bit of the atmosphere in which we set about our work,” he added. “I remember quite keenly the feeling when we showed some of the earliest stages of the disaster in terms of what cameras had recorded.
“There was a very keen sense in the hall of the terrible events that were unfolding.
“We could not see what was happening to individuals but you could imagine it. Even then I do not think one’s personal imagination could grasp the whole horror of it.”
Lord Cullen said he hoped that the families of victims and survivors would be comforted by the fact that steps had been taken to improve offshore health and safety.
“I would say to them that I hope what has passed in the last 25 years will be a continuing reassurance that everything that can be done is being done to achieve safety,” he added.
“There is no such thing as a guarantee there will never be a major accident but you can take every possible measure within reason to prevent it happening. I would like them to feel reassured that is so.”
Meanwhile Lord Cullen believes the oil and gas industry’s “robust” safety regime will help prevent a repeat of the Piper Alpha disaster.
The judge said there was no room for complacency, but added that “considerable improvements” had been made in the sector over the last 25 years.
His inquiry report made 106 recommendations, including the creation of a separate division of the Health and Safety Executive devoted to offshore safety.
Lord Cullen said the oil and gas industry responded to his suggestions “favourably”, not least because it suggested some of them. “Things have changed in the sense that the way safety is regulated is completely different to what it was 25 years ago,” he added. “That shows in both the design of offshore installations, the equipment and the way in which they are operated.”
Lord Cullen said he was “very aware” that his report would be of great interest to the industry, victims’ families and people injured in the disaster, as well as the UK Government.
An event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster is being held at the Scottish Parliament on June 26.