Monday, July 23, 2012
Piper Alpha: The worst disaster in the history of offshore
Many years before Macondo, there was a much more deadly disaster offshore in the North Sea.
Piper Alpha was the largest platform (by production) in the world in its era (317,000 barrels/day, peak). It was built in the North Sea by a consortium run by Occidental and Dr. Armand Hammer.
I recently picked up Fire in the Night: The Piper Alpha Disaster by Stephen McGinty. The book was only published in 2008 (the incident happened in 1988), so enough time has passed to be able to sort things out.
In addition to time, the Piper Alpha incident had the benefit of the Cullen Report (summarized here), which is a Royal Inquiry. In the US, we have this pesky thing called the 5th Amendment, which protects people from self-incrimination. Under a Royal Commission, they just do away with that. Someone doesn't want to talk, they just lock them up until they feel like spilling the beans. Lord Cullen never had to actually do that to anyone, but I'm sure having a bazooka in your pocket, as Secretary Paulson once said, doesn't hurt.
There were many, many lessons learned from Piper Alpha that are now standard on offshore operations today (SSIV's, Temporary Safe Refuges, etc.). One of my favorites is intumescent paint:
It expands, forming an insulating layer that keeps major structural items intact long enough for an evacuation. In Macondo, 10 people on the drill floor died basically instantaneously. Only 1 person died after the initial explosion (a crane operator who fell and was incapacitated and later burned). All others were able to make it to a safe refuge and the Deepwater Horizon stayed structurally intact for quite some time (~36 hours!). There's actually some disagreement out there as to whether it was the fire that finally killed the rig (high temperature weakening of steel), or the haphazard firefighting dousing the wrong areas in water and flooding the hull (ballasting down the ship, causing it to capsize).
One sad parallel between Macondo and Piper Alpha was the confusion that all too often accompanies disaster. In Piper Alpha, loved ones waited at a hospital in Scotland. One by one, helicopters would land and there would be those who would find out their loved ones made it. Eventually, there were no more helicopters and the families were notified that's all the survivors. Sadly, for another two days, some clung to a rumor that a 'Russian freighter' had picked up most of the rest of the crew and was steaming to a port with the radio broken. Some of the families even drove up to the port to wait on a freighter that would never arrive.
In Macondo, noted fuckface Jiff Hingle, Sheriff of Plaquimines Parish* spread a rumor that a survival capsule was found and contained all of the 11 missing. MSNBC** and Fox News reported that as fact. One of the widows was actually on the phone with her husband's employer getting the news her husband would never return when she saw on the news the report and went on and on about how "he's alive" while the TO employee was patiently trying to explain that the report was false and he died on the rig. Also, both the UK, under a Socialist Prime Minister, and the circa-2010 MMS had almost exactly the same Inspector:Platform ratio.
In the Piper Alpha disaster, Fast Rescue Crafts were worth their weight in Myrrh. My favorite part of the whole book was the story of the Silver Pit's FRB. It pulled more people out of the water than anyone else. It made several 'easy' rescues early, but then took an absolute beating later on when it edged in near the inferno to pick up survivors. They have a load of 3 survivors on board, 4 crewman on the boat, including the coxswain. The boat is leaking and the motor is starting to sound like it's on its last legs. The coxswain spots someone directly under the inferno waving for help. The platform was collapsing into the sea and just the heat flux from the fire that close would give you bad burns, but the Coxswain asked his boatmates, "...Are we going to go? We're his only hope."
The response was a chorus of "GO!" The coxswain puts the throttle down, they go in full speed and with no margin for a second run or even slowing down (with the inferno over their head and the platform literally coming down in pieces all around them) and the crew grabs the swimmer out the water and pulls him in to safety. He survived, despite bad burns.
The FRB goes back to its mothership, offloads survivors, then despite massive damage, wonky engines, and the boat sinking underneath them, it goes back out to try to rescue more. The FRB was all used up from their antics and sank beneath their feet. The coxswain bobbed in the North Atlantic satisfied he had done absolutely everything possible to save people. The final death toll was 167 with only 61 survivors. 33 were rescued by the Silver Pit's FRB.
There is one direct link between Macondo and Piper Alpha: The Tharos / Deepwater Marianas. The Tharos was a dive support vessel that someone billed as an 'offshore fire engine' on the side. It had some design defects and didn't save as many lives on Piper Alpha as it probably should have. It later got converted to a MODU. That MODU spudded (started the drilling) of Macondo. It on the scene for both Piper Alpha and Macondo.
* Source: "A Hole in the Bottom of the Sea" by Joel Achenbach, page 44
** Source: "Fire on the Horizon"