July 6, 1988: The Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea explodes. Four companies which later became OPCAL were first given a license to explore for oil in the North Sea in 1972. They discovered the Piper oil fields and began building a platform in 1973 with oil production commencing in 1976. That first year they produced 250,000 barrels per day and eventually increased to 300,000. A gas recovery unit was added in 1980 and production dropped 125,000 barrels per day by 1988. There were three platforms ranged miles apart, but still connected via piping. Piper Alpha was built about 120 miles northeast of Aberdeen in water that was 474 feet deep. The platform was made of four modules separated by firewalls.
The original construction had the most dangerous parts of the operation furthest from the personnel areas. With the conversion from oil to gas in 1980, that configuration changed. By 1988, Piper Alpha was one of the heaviest platforms operating in the North Sea. There were six major projects operating in order to maintain and upgrade the platform at the time of the explosion. Occidental opted to run the platform rather than shut down for these fixes. The platform was completely destroyed in the blast and many of the people involved died, so events have been surmised from careful analysis after the fact.
At noon on this day, two condensate pumps displaced the platform’s condensate for transport to the coast. Pump A’s safety valve was removed for routine maintenance and replaced by a disk cover because work would not be completed by 6 PM. A message was left that the pump was not ready and could not be used under any circumstances. The day shift ended at 6 PM and the 62 men of the night crew took over. The message about the pump was not properly communicated and got lost. Firefighting pumps were on manual operation and could not be operated remotely due to safety concerns for divers near intake valves for sucking water up to fight any fires.
At 9:45 PM solid ice crystals began forming on Pump B and it stopped working. Nothing was found indicating any issues with Pump A and at 9:55 PM the pump was switched on. Because of the missing valve, gas flowed in under high pressure. Alarms were sounded. Before anyone could act, the gas ignited and exploded and put a man-sized hole in the firewall. The fire spread and would have burned out except that the platform was connected to the other two in the area. By 12:45 AM the entire platform was gone. Of the 226 people aboard, 165 died as well as 2 people from the Standby Vessel used as part of the rescue team.
Formula for success: rise early, work hard, strike oil. – J. Paul Getty
A century ago, petroleum – what we call oil – was just an obscure commodity; today it is almost as vital to human existence as water. – James Buchan
Thankfully, due to the United Kingdom and the commitment of the Westminster government we are able to ensure that money brought in, whether it be from the City of London or from North Sea oil, can be pooled and directed to wherever it is needed most. That is what being in the United Kingdom is all about. – Iain Duncan Smith
The extraction of oil, coal and minerals brought, and still brings, a cost to the environment. – Bono
Also on this day: The Greatest Show on Earth – In 1944, the Hartford Circus Fire kills over 100 attendees at the circus.
Dirigible – In 1919, the first east to west Atlantic crossing in an airship successfully concluded.
Rabidly Scientific – In 1885, Louis Pasteur begins the first series of rabies shots.
Homestead Strike – In 1892, violence broke out during the strike.