The story of Piper Alpha well told 20 years on

Fire in The Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster by Stephen McGinty Macmillan, £17.99

PETROL prices are sky high and energy bills are soaring while record profits are being recorded by multinational corporations, not to mention the conflict in Iraq and global warming. It seems our oil industry is never far away from the news and never far from criticism. So with the recent anniversary of Piper Alpha – the world’s worst offshore oil disaster – it isn’t surprising to see a new book on the subject.

It was 20 years ago, around 10pm on 6th July, 1988, that the North Sea platform exploded, killing 167 men and scarring the lives of survivors and families left behind.

Since then there have been countless accounts in the press, books and documentaries of that fateful night.

Therefore writer and journalist Stephen McGinty has had the awkward and unenviable task of giving an accurate yet original and thought-provoking take on what happened while remaining impartial and sensitive to those still coming to terms with their own experience and loss.

Thankfully though, he has achieved just that in this book, which will open your eyes to the nature of an industry we so often take for granted while moving the reader with acts of bravery and kindness, chilling recollections of near death experiences and the horrific sheer waste of life that occurred in the North Sea over two decades ago.

As McGinty admits himself in the introduction of the book, no story on Piper Alpha will ever be able to be told in its true entirety. Yet he has taken great effort to piece together as detailed account as he can with the use of his research, which included interviews with survivors, families of the dead, dozens of archive sources and Lord Cullen’s inquiry report published in 1990.

His use of the plethora of information is what makes this book stand out from others. From the first chapter, the reader sees and hears as the people there at the time did. Whether it be the account of engineer Robert Vernon, whose decision to start one of the pumps started the explosion, Joseph Meanen, who chose to leap 170 feet into the ocean rather than burn and amazingly survived, or the Reverend Alan Swinton, who had to console families as they learnt their loved ones’ fates at Aberdeen’s Royal Infirmary, the attention to detail is staggering and leaves us in no doubt as to the reality of the situations people faced.

The reader gets a real insight into the work the men did on the platform before it all happened too. The lives they had on and offshore, the jobs done, the language used, the food they ate and even their reading habits. By bringing such a human face to the dead, it becomes hard to read at times when later, descriptions of men drowning, burning to death and never being found are retold.

This is interspersed with relevant background information on the oil industry itself and Occidental, which owned the platform. Although McGinty doesn’t tell us to point the finger of blame, the book will leave the reader amazed at the manner in which such a tragedy could have been prevented.

Ultimately, the systems in place to save lives were shockingly poor. Safety was disregard­ed in favour of financial gain.

The sense of frustration at the way in which compensation payouts were handled afterwards is also reflected in the book and the reaction by the international media, British government and Occidental’s chairman and CEO, Armand Hammer, make interesting topics in their own right.

The word “disaster” is used too often these days, usually in the rhetoric of sports commentators or gossip columnists. Yet McGinty makes the reader remember what it really means and can do it without any exaggeration or distorted facts. Here we have a story filled with emotional integrity, multi-dimensional characters, human endeavour and a tragic injustice. The saddest part of all, however, is that this is not fiction.

Lewie Peterson.


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