Piper Alpha remembered 25 years on

Charles Haffey with the George Medal he received for his part in helping resuce survivors from the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster 25 years ago (picture by Mark Rodgers)
Charles Haffey with the George Medal he received for his part in helping resuce survivors from the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster 25 years ago (picture by Mark Rodgers)

QUIET contemplation is how Charles Haffey chooses each year to remember the events he witnessed on a truly tragic night.

This Saturday, he’ll be showing the same dignified respect, on the 25th anniversary of the world’s worst offshore oil disaster.

On Wednesday, July 6, 1988, a devastating series of explosions and oil and gas fires aboard the Piper Alpha rig in the North Sea killed 167 men.

Charles was a crewman on the rig’s standby vessel that night, and helped ferry a number of survivors to safety – some horrifically burned – before he and his colleagues had to be rescued themselves.

He later received the George Medal award for bravery – and although the human scale of the tragedy is still hard to fathom, he believes that dreadful sacrifice has, over time, strengthened bonds between those who work at sea.

Ex-Kirkland High pupil Charles, now 51, had been an able seaman in the Royal Navy and had served during the conflict in the Falklands conflict before he became a deckhand on the ‘Silver Pit’, a standby ship for the Piper Alpha rig, around 120 miles north east of Aberdeen.

On that summer’s day, from their position on the boat, they had noticed some flaring but had little reason to suspect anything was wrong.

But shortly after 10 p.m., as he was going to bed, Charles heard a bang.

He knew it was an explosion, but still thought those on the Piper might have been able to put safety precautions in place.

“I looked out of the hatch and saw what I can only describe as a cloud of white smoke and a dirty ball of cotton wool, with an orange glow emanating from behind it,” he said.

“I didn’t know it was to do with gas, but it was certainly coming from the rig.”

Their captain triggered the alarm while Charles and three colleagues donned survival suits and set off on a 15-foot supply boat from the ‘Silver Pit’ to the rig.

“There didn’t seem to be any discernible panic, but then a guy came down a set of ladders to the spider deck, the lowest deck on the platform.

“We thought he was there to tell us to hang back, but then we saw the look on his face – he did not want to be there.

“He jumped into the rescue craft, then other men started coming down – and that was the first inkling that something was terribly wrong on that platform.”

Charles and the crew went back to the same ladder and jammed their boat against the platform leg, helping workmen on board to take them to the ‘Silver Pit’, before returning to the rig.

“After we went back for about the third time, all hell was breaking loose,” recalled Charles.

More explosions were occuring – two neighbouring rigs, Tartan and Claymore, were feeding gas to the stricken Piper – and a piece of burning rubber landed in Charles’ mouth.

Around half an hour after the initial blast, he noticed the men boarding their boat had more severe burns than the others, but training and a kind of self-preservation took over, and they got to the vessel via scrambling nets.

“Then we noticed men in the water – we didn’t think there would be survivors by that time,” he recalled.

“There was a group on an upturned liferaft, which should have been orange in colour but was black – absolutely black.

“Some of them were horrifically burned – really horrific.

“I saw one guy with not a bit of skin left on his arms. We were trying to get the men on to the boat but, if we grabbed them, we were effectively taking away lumps of meat.”

About an hour later, they were still looking for survivors, by which time the rig was “like a massive, massive blowtorch”, said Charles.

“It was not so much the heat, it was the noise. I never knew flames could be so loud.”

Charles said he would also never forget the moment when three men, virtually unscathed, suddenly appeared on the leg of the platform.

“Where they came from, to this day, I don’t know,” he said.

“We were about 15-20 metres from the rig, then there was a massive double explosion above our heads, and I felt a pain going up my spine.”

After that, the men began swimming towards the boat. One disappeared about three times before they got him, while, surreally, Charles noticed another had a copy of Tolkien’s ‘Lord Of The Rings’ in his back pocket as they hauled him aboard.

Minutes later, Charles noticed his coxswain was waist-deep in water – and he became aware they were sinking.

The double explosion above them had, in fact, happened beneath them and travelled all the way up through the pipes. It had lifted their boat clean out of the water and slammed it down again, snapping it in two.

Charles hadn’t realised it, but that’s what had caused the jarring pain in his spine.

He and his crew were drifting away from the Piper rig by this time and were adequately dressed, with plenty of air, so they did not fear for their lives, he said.

They were picked up around 2 a.m. by a Dutch crew who gave them coffee and, for the first time, they realised how physically tired they were, having ushered nearly 40 men to safety on trips back and forth from the ‘Silver Pit’.

“It seemed at the time like the most gorgeous coffee in the world,” said Charles.

Later, Charles established close links with the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association and gave evidence at the Cullen inquiry into the disaster, in which he said the standby and rescue vessels had been very poorly equipped to deal with an emergency of such magnitude.

Charles also had mixed emotions about seeing the wreckage of the 34.000-tonne rig, and the memories of what it represented, before it was finally taken down.

“I hated this thing because of the pain and suffering it had caused,” he said. “But when they demolished it, and it sank beneath the waves, I thought ‘why is there nothing there to remind us of it’? I hated it for being there, then I hated it for not being there.”

Although Charles did return to offshore work, and tries not to be resentful about the disaster and its long-term effects, the human loss still seems inconceivable.

“I can’t take it in – 167 men – even today,” he said. “I look at these figures and I just can’t believe it. I can’t believe we lost so many many men, probably within 45 minutes.

“There’s an inherent danger that it’s so high a figure, it may become just that – a figure. But every one of them was an individual.”

THREE years after the disaster, Charles Haffey received the George Medal, the second-highest civil award of the UK and the Commonwealth, presented for non-combat acts of bravery.

While he does take some comfort from the honour, he said: “I did not expect it.

“We accepted the medal, but it wasn’t just a reflection of our behaviour – it was the crew of the ‘Silver Pit’, the rescue of the guys, even Piper Alpha itself.

“It reflected everybody’s behaviour that night.”

Charles rarely uses the accolade, or trades on the prestige that the letters ‘GM’ after his name might bring.

However, he is proud to observe the terms of the Royal Warrant and live up to the standards of conduct expected of recipients.

“You have to respect the memory of the guys, and the circumstances under which it was awarded,” he added.

“I accepted it on their behalf. We took a lot of courage from these guys to get on with our own lives.”

Charles, who later worked in the civil service and is now a Levenmouth representative on Fife Council, also returned to work offshore – an act which may have seemed unthinkable.

However, even after such tragedy, he said the profession had “a unique environment” and there was a sense, shared by many, of belonging at sea.

Charles also took part in the filming of a documentary – ‘Fire In The Night’ – which was adapted from a book about Piper Alpha by Stephen McGinty.

It was premiered recently at the Edinburgh International Film Festival – where it won an award – and is due to be screened soon on BBC television.

JUST days following the tragedy, the Mail spoke to survivor Harry Calder, now 60, formerly of Kennoway.

Harry, a helicopter landing officer, had been in the accommodation area and escaped by jumping around 100 feet into the sea. Miraculously, after a while, a lifejacket floated straight towards him and he was picked up by a supply boat.

Before that, he and his colleagues had found their attempts to escape thwarted by repeated explosions, smoke, flames and collapsing wreckage, as they tried to make their way from the accommodation quarters after the initial blast.

The skin on the palms of Harry’s hands was seared off as he and a friend scrambled across red-hot pipes, having spotted a clearance on the deck where they made their leap to safety.

He said before that, they had shaken hands and accepted they were going to die.

Harry told the Mail: “I saw too much in those two hours. I hope I never see anything like it again in my life.”