Piper Alpha: It was too dangerous to keep diving

Frank Murray, pictured in 1991 at the National Hyperbaric Centre, was woken with the news by his son.
Frank Murray, pictured in 1991 at the National Hyperbaric Centre, was woken with the news by his son.

The first government official on the scene after Piper Alpha exploded still remembers the smell of the burning paint that greeted him when he landed on the nearest support vessel.

Frank Murray was on leave from his job as Her Majesty’s principal inspector for diving when his young son woke him from his sleep after seeing the news coverage.

Not long afterwards he found himself landed on board the firefighting rig Tharos and scarcely able to believe his eyes.

Now 72 and living near Banchory, he recalls the scene vividly.

“She was anchored a short distance away from Piper when the explosions occurred, she had to winch her way in,” he told the Press and Journal.

“But the inferno was such they couldn’t get close enough. The ferocity of the fire meant that nothing in this world could have assisted in dampening it down.

“Just after midnight the platform didn’t exist, it had melted, all that was left was the pipes of the tartan riser.”

Fire rages on the Piper Alpha platform on July 6 1988.

Mr Murray said he struggled to comprehend what he was seeing, particularly given he had previously worked on the platform.

But he was forced to try to bring some calm to the situation, as the crew of the Tharos searched in vain for survivors.

“It took me some time to get my head around the catastrophic nature of what had happened,” he said.

The Piper Alpha oil platform the day after the disaster.

“The strength of emotion was running really high. They were trying to get people from the sea bed.

“They knew it was not a rescue but a recovery at that point. I had to take the decision to get people to stop diving. That was very difficult and was not popular.

“The divers wanted to get to the bottom to recover people but that would have led to more fatalities because there was stuff falling all over without warning.

“We had to make our way down bit by bit and make it safe.”

Mr Murray spent six weeks helping recover men from the water and taking witness statements from survivors.

His experiences that day and during his lengthy career would later lead him to help establish Australia’s diving safety body.

And he said that the legacy of Piper Alpha was in the Cullen Inquiry’s impact on offshore safety.

He said: “The Cullen Inquiry was superb, it dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

“The inquiry has to be congratulated in the manner in which they got to the absolute minutiae of what had happened and how the industry should recover.

Lord Cullen conducted a detailed inquiry into the Piper Alpha disaster.

“The industry had never seen anything like it and hopefully never will again.

“But not too many years ago the Mumbai High North had a very similar incident but there were nowhere near as many deaths.

“That’s probably because of the lessons learned about the manufacture and structure of the platforms in the UK that came from the Cullen Inquiry.”

To follow more of our special Piper Alpha 30th anniversary coverage, click here.