Piper Alpha: An experience I’ll never forget

Dick Winchester
Dick Winchester

On the evening of the 6th July 1988 I went to bed as I always did at just after midnight because I was in charge of my then baby son’s last feed.  Having listened to the news during that feed I was aware that there was a fire offshore but at that point in time the details were sparse.

That all changed the following morning when I received a call from my contact in Occidental’s marine department.

They asked if I would be prepared to go offshore that morning to set up a subsea survey operation for Occidental, the aim of which was to determine where everything that had fallen off the jacket had ended up and to assess the stability of what was left.

They were particularly interested in finding out whether there were any leaks around the risers which would have made a conventional well kill operation somewhat difficult.

I had done a lot of work in the past for Occidental and on Piper Alpha in particular. So I knew what it should look like underwater, though that knowledge was of very limited benefit given the extent of the damage.

After a quick consultation with my inevitably somewhat concerned wife I agreed I would go and arranged to meet for a briefing on the situation and discuss the tasks they wanted me to manage on their behalf.

When I arrived at Occidental’s office in Bridge of the Don the first difficulty I faced was getting in because the place was mobbed by the press, TV and radio crews. The second difficulty was getting people to sit down and to explain as best they could what they thought had happened, whether they thought there were any ongoing risks and to answer some simple questions. Where were we going to get an ROV and support vessel at such short notice in the middle of what was then “the busy season”?

By around 11am I was on a fairly empty helicopter on my way out to Tharos, the semi-sub fire fighting and rescue floating platform, which, despite the very best efforts of its crew, didn’t achieve very much but given how the fire evolved, was probably never going to.

As we approached the smouldering hulk of what was little was left of Piper Alpha the enormity of this tragic event really began to hit home.

I was met by an old friend with whom I’d worked with on manned submersible ops during the 70s. It was good to see a familiar face but it was also good to know there was a reliable contact on board.

He also brought the news that BP was prepared to give us a SubSea Offshore ROV and BUE Ships DP support vessel and that it was on its way.

Once she’d arrived I transferred across and started the task of briefing everyone on board and offering those that wanted it the option of getting off. Some who had relations or friends that were missing chose to do just that.  Fortunately though pretty much the entire ROV and survey team stayed put.

We started operations almost immediately and began with a comprehensive side scan sonar survey which would tell us the position of objects on the seabed which we could then elect to identify using the ROV or not.

This went well and I remember being pleasantly surprised we didn’t lose the sonar body in the debris pile. The other issue was that having to make close passes to what was left of the well deck posed a risk because every now and then one or two of the wells would throw out a huge fireball due to the partial failure of the downhole safety valves.  This was not only a tad scary if you happened to be quite close to it at the time but on one occasion the blast threw a bunch of scaffolding pipes in our direction.

Once we’d identified the position of all the main items, visually identified what we could including the accommodation module with the ROV and completed the other parts of the operational plan we set about another task which we all felt was an absolute necessity. This was of course the recovery of as many bodies as we could find before they were lost forever. We felt we owed it to the families to make this effort and Occidental agreed.

As it turned out we did in fact recover quite a reasonable number although nothing like as many as we’d have liked.  I believe some 30 or so personnel are still missing to this day.

I was also fortunate to meet Red Adair on Tharos. Now there was a character and a half! When he was asked if he was personally going onto the Piper drill deck to supervise the operations he laughed and replied: “You’re kidding. That’s why I employ these youngsters. I’m just here for the publicity.” He was joking of course because he was very firmly in charge. A man of immense knowledge and experience whose team contributed greatly to making the site relatively safe and reducing the risk of environmental damage.

Job done I left the ship after a couple of weeks. An experience I’ll never forget as indeed I’m sure will none of the others involved.

The baby son?  He’s grown up & is now working in the industry himself and yes, it does sometimes make me nervy.

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