Remembering Piper Alpha
On a regular sweep of my extensive Life collection – mostly stored in the loft – I find seven yellow, variable-priced, London Underground tickets from the early 1980s. Next to them is a book of colourful matches from a now defunct restaurant in Austin Texas in 1994, the stub of an Aeroflot boarding pass and a group of diaries from the late 70s that reveal too many of my days involved riding late, showering, going to town and watching Dallas. Then there is a copy of the Shetland Times from July 1988.
And the one thing of real value I am unable to find – and for which I have spent the past 20 years searching – is a cassette tape recorded on the same evening we produced the front page.
The C60 is, if course, worth nothing, but the hours of telephone recording on it are, in many ways, priceless. It is the exchange – often monotonous – between the Occidental Press Office and me on the night of 6th July 1988.
What is chilling about the conversation on the tape is the escalation of events as we progress through an evening. The early reports of a simple support ship fire soon begin to give way to the deadly and nightmarish explosion that ripped through the Piper Alpha rig and killed 167 men.
But that is not its value.
Significantly, the recording, captured on my full-sized Sony Dictaphone with a cable mic that suctioned onto the earpiece of my phone, is perhaps the only one that contains the crucial timeline for that night – something that has remained in considerable doubt for the past 25 years and was central to Lord Cullen’s subsequent inquiry.
My recollection of the events as they unfolded that night differ from the official version and the tape would corroborate this. The timeline is significant because it relates to how, when and what was done to tackle the fire.
It is also significant because so many people died and the platform completely destroyed that night, meaning most records were lost.
I was about six-months into my first job as a reporter on The Shetland Times when our small team broke the story by chance. I was checking with the coastguard to make sure we had everything covered on an earlier story about a ship that had run aground on rocks in the harbor.
Just as I was about to go – and as we were preparing to put the paper to bed and go to print – they told me there was some activity in the North Sea that might be worth noting.
That was how the first news of the Piper Alpha disaster broke.
Our relationship with the Shetland Coastguard and the crew of Oscar Charlie, the first rescue helicopter on scene, was crucial – because for almost three hours we were the only people able to tell the world what was happening.
Between my regular calls to Occidental, I spoke to reporters from CNN, NBC, BBC, Press Association, AP, every UK national newspaper and a variety of news agencies from across the world. We were also the first to get pictures – shot from the chopper and rushed to the office to be developed and distributed.
Like all big stories, it wasn’t until around 3am, when I returned home, exhausted, that the enormity of the event struck me. The numbers of dead and missing had escalated with every call I made to Occidental, the details more horrific. But until I paused before sleep, they had only been numbers.
But those numbers – 164 on the platform and two on the support ship – are also part of the more important things I have kept in my Life collection with me over the years.