Twenty three years ago today a massive offshore oil platform near the Shetland Islands called Piper Alpha – responsible for more than a tenth of all oil and gas production in the North Sea – exploded and burned, killing 168 men and leaving 61 survivors in various states of injury.
The disaster was initiated by an innocent enough mistake coupled with bad luck. The day crew shut down a gas pump, which provided electricity for the platform, for maintenance and left a written notice for the night shift that the pump should not be restarted under any circumstances. Unfortunately the night crew did not find the warning, and when the backup pump malfunctioned they attempted to restart the first pump to keep the platform's power supply functioning. The subsequent explosion triggered a chain of events that resulted in the massive fire you see in the video.
The initial explosion was not large enough to destroy the platform, and nearly all of the crew could have escaped with their lives if the disaster ended there. But it didn't. Two other connected nearby platforms, Tartan and Claymore, pumped all of their own gas/oil to Piper Alpha, which in turn pumped it to an onshore refinery. After the initial explosion on Alpha, the other two platforms continued to pump gas (which burns, FYI) because the owners, Occidental Petroleum, was concerned about the costs of shutting down all three platforms. Apparently when oil/gas production is shut down and pumping ceases, it takes many days and a lot of effort to get the process started again. This was despite the fact that two years prior the company conducted a study and concluded that a fire fed by the massive inter-platform pipes connecting Alpha, Tartan, and Claymore could not be extinguished and would result in total destruction.
So the crew supervisors on Tartan and Claymore – clearly able see Alpha burning furiously just a mile away – continued pumping gas to it because their bosses on the phone told them to. Shockingly, a second and even larger explosion followed. Rescue of the Alpha crew became impossible at that point. Most jumped 100 feet into the North Sea, choosing drowning over burning. After the second explosion, the crews on the adjoining platforms finally (and far too late) shut down. A third, massive explosion occurred anyway, killing two men on a boat attempting to rescue the drowning crew.
Thankfully most of us don't have to work on anything as unavoidably dangerous as an offshore oil platform. That said, this has been your friendly daily reminder: Your employer has your best interests at heart. The free market, not regulation, will protect you. Do not think; always do as you're told. Remember those three unassailable truths and I don't see what could go wrong.