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Piper Alpha and Titanic – Safety lessons for Oil & Gas Industry



By Captain Chandra Godakanda Arachchi

Master Mariner, Gladstone LNG Australia

S. S. Titanic was said to be unsinkable. Similarly the oil platform, Piper Alpha, owned by Occidental Petroleum, 110 miles from the Port of Aberdeen, operated in extreme weather conditions for most part of the year and, therefore, was considered indestructible. The sheer size of the structure also contributed to this view. The sinking of Titanic has been the maritime disaster of all time and the Piper Alpha disaster where 70 percent of the 226-member crew on board, in the North Sea, is said to be the worst off-shore oil platform tragedy of all time. A series of explosions caused some sections of 300-foot tall structure to collapse within three hours. It became a flaming ball of twisted metal.

Piper Alpha was producing 30,000 tonnes of oil per day, 10 percent of the British North Sea oil production. The shipping industry witnessed an unprecedented regulatory regime post the grounding of Exxon Valdez, in Alaska, in 1989, causing a massive crude oil spill; similarly Piper Alpha disaster led to the introduction of significant regulatory changes in the oil and gas industry in terms of safety improvement and managing “Permit to work” system.

Piper Alpha, which operated 12 years from 1976, was first built for oil production but modified for gas production as well. Piper Alpha was connected to a network of oil platforms (Claymore and Tartan).

Almost all survivors from Piper Alpha were those who jumped into the burning sea from a height about three hundred feet which required a lot of courage.

What really happed on 06th July 1988. Here is the story in brief!

It was just another summer night in North Sea, 06 July, 1988. Some 226 crew on board Piper Alpha were having another night shift with usual problems the control room had to deal with.

Piper Alpha had two gas pumps (centrifugal compressors), A & B, to boost gas pressure for delivering gas to Flotta, an island terminal off Scotland. There had been two work permits issued during the day shift, one for pressure safety valve (PSV) servicing and the other for overhauling compressor A; the work would have taken two weeks. The crew had removed the PSV for servicing and taken compressor A out of service only by isolating power, which is illegal. The industry now requires full isolation, key common lockout by workers, permit holder and permit authority so that everyone involved in work has to unlock before being able to start the compressor. Crew could not complete servicing PSV as expected by 1800 hrs and the engineers decided to postpone reinstating the PSV until morning and fitted a blind flange (metal plate) where the PSV had been removed. (It was probably not a pressure rated flange). The overhauling of the compressor A had not begun during the day shift, and this was noted in the work permit form. When the engineer concerned arrived in the control room to hand over the permits, the supervisor was busy and therefore he failed to inform the latter that the PSV was out of service. He, however, made notes on the permit form, returned two permits and knocked off for the day. Unfortunately, two permits got separated in the control room. There could have been many permits on that day due to a new gas line being installed during weeks. Piper Alpha was not shut down for gas line installation as the installation could be managed with control measures as stipulated. A critical aspect to note here is that nobody in the control room had an update of incomplete PSV work. In the mean time, the diesel fire-fighting pumps had been switched to ‘manual from ‘auto’ as a control measure to prevent divers who were at work being sucked in case the fire pumps started in ‘auto’ mode.

At 2145 hrs, the compressor B tripped and failed to restart despite repeated attempts by the control room. Now, there was another risk looming due to tripping the compressor. In case of failure to get the compressor started within a certain period of time, the platform runs the risk of losing gas pressure, which is required to run the gas generator. The consequence of shutting down the gas generator is huge with platform shutting down including drilling. There is also the likelihood of the drill head getting stuck. Getting everything back online is a time consuming and that involves a huge cost. Therefore with this scenario in mind, the shift engineer traced the permit for compressor A and noticed that overhaul work had not begun but failed to realise PSV was out of service due to the unfortunate separation of permits. At 2155 hrs, the supervisor assumed it was safe to start the compressor A and ordered reinstating power and got it online. As the PSV was located about five metres above the compressor, the crew failed to notice the missing PSV. As the compressor started at 2157 hrs due to the sudden rise in pressure, gas started to leak from the temporary blind flange. A huge amount of gas leaked and alarms were going off in the control room continuously; this was followed by an explosion. The supervisor immediately activated the emergency shutdown (ESD), which shut off safety valves (XVs) of the huge oil and gas production risers of Piper Alpha from sea bed, isolating Piper Alpha, but it appears that it did not shut down the connections to other network oil platforms. The explosion did rupture the fire walls in oil separator area, which caused an oil fire to erupt.

It was believed that at 2204 hrs only two crew members had been killed due to the blast. There had been similar fires in certain other rigs but they had been doused. When the fire started, fire fighting pumps should have started, but unfortunately pumps had been switched to ‘manual’ as was said previously. Two brave members tried to and start the pumps manually, but they failed and were never seen again. At this stage, emergency procedures simply collapsed and the Rig Manager who was supposed to coordinate the emergency from radio room sent a distress message, which was heard by the two nearby rigs, Claymore and Tartan. No attempt was made to announce the distress message over the public address system. No one told the crew what to do. Workers were supposed to gather at life boat deck and wait for instructions in case of emergency, but the fire prevented them from reaching the muster point and, therefore over 100 crew members waited in fireproof accommodation block beneath the helicopter pad and waited for helicopter rescue. However, the wind was blowing the heavy smoke over the helicopter pad and it was impossible for the helicopter to land. Accommodation block too gradually started to fill with smoke and even at this there was no attempt whatsoever to evacuate the crew to safety.

ESD had shut down oil and gas production, but oil in the separator continued to burn, and it eventually burnt itself out with the fire extinguishing itself, but Claymore continued to pump oil even though Claymore heard the May Day, and witnessed the flames of Piper Alpha from a distance. It was waiting instruction from on shore Occidental control room to shut down. Claymore repeatedly attempted to contact the shore control room for a long time but without success. Therefore the discharge pressure of Claymore and Tartan oil pumping fed oil through a damaged pipework to fire on Piper Alpha, adding more and more fuel to fire. Both Claymore and Tartan knew it was costly to restart the production from platform post ESD, and that perhaps led them to wait for instructions to shut down rather than taking decisions on their own.

There was another huge problem looming at 2218 hrs with oil fire heating the high pressure gas risers (on Piper Alpha) from Titan. Heat eventually damaged the pipe work of high pressure gas riser from Tartan, adding three tonnes of gas per second to already burning Piper Alpha. Most crew members were still alive. Some of them decided to jump into the burning sea from a ten-storey-high Piper Alpha prior to the second explosion. Those are the people who survived and 167 crew members were killed. More than 75% of the Piper Alpha facility was destroyed although it had been considered indestructible. Emergency response vessel Faros by luck happened to be there anchored closer to Piper Alpha. It attempted to start the fire pumps in a hurry, causing them to trip and this led to a 10-minute delay in operating them. The extendable gangway was unusually extremely slow and it took more than an hour to reach the deck with crew. It was too late. After the second explosion, Faros could not get closer to Piper Alpha due to intense heat and it manoeuvred away from Piper Alpha for its own safety.

Occidental Petroleum later destroyed the remains of Piper Alpha within a year, closed down the operation never to operate in the North Sea ever again. Investigators found that the safety culture on Piper Alpha had been superficial. CEO of Occidental Petroleum at a post-disaster press conference said that 06 July 06 was the first incident in twelve years since the commencement of operations, but the fact remains that a crew member had been killed in an accident four year prior to the Piper Alpha tragedy. That could have been an ideal opportunity for the company to review safety procedures on Piper Alpha. Had Occidental Petroleum been seriously committed to safety, the incident probably would not have occurred and 167 crew would not have been killed.

It is extremely important to comply with safety standards in oil and gas industry.

(The writer has nearly 25 years of experience in oil and gas industry in Australia)


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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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