This article was kindly published in The Scotsman and HSE People. Click on either logo to go there.
When I was very young, I noticed that there was something odd about my father’s hands. His hands somehow looked older than they were supposed to. They were wrinkled, rough, and red; out of place among the otherwise youthful features of a man in his late 20s. As I grew up, I learned that those funny wrinkles on my father’s hands were, in fact, burn scars. Skin grafts served as a crystallised, ever-present memory of the most traumatic experience in his life. He was one of the 61 survivors of the Piper Alpha Disaster. Thirty years on, this is the story of growing up with a terrific but troubled father who eventually succumbed to the psychological struggles of living with an unimaginable horror. This is how I came to appreciate safety and make it part of my life as a scientist.
On 6 July, 1988, off the coast of Aberdeen, safety breaches caused a cascade of gas explosions on the Piper Alpha oil rig, killing 167 of 226 workers on board. It remains the most devastating incident of its kind to this day. I was just three months old at the time. In my earliest years, I was protected from the truth. The burns on my father’s hands were just little oddities to a curious toddler. As I matured, so too did my father’s willingness to share the harrowing detail of his experience aboard Piper Alpha and his unlikely escape from the ferocious fire.
From the time of the first gas explosion, my father and his nearby colleagues struggled to move from the gallery and living quarters to anywhere outside. Anywhere cooler. Anywhere with clean air.
As the flames and the smoke consumed every corner of the structure, the light from a friend’s torch and a series of chance events led my father and the man with the torch to the scorching helideck atop the rig. Parched from the smoke and burned by the flames, my father was faced with an impossible choice: jump or die.
He jumped. His friend could not. From a height greater than six double-decker buses stacked one on top of the other, his adrenaline-spiked thoughts turned to home. As I listened to my father recount the experience, he showed me old newspaper clippings in which he reported thinking of me, his new-born son, as he made that choice on the helideck. He jumped 174 feet, falling through six seconds of silence before crashing into the oil-coated blackness of the North Sea. Kicking loose his heavy boots, he floated away from the glowing remains of Piper Alpha, passed lifeless bodies and chunks of debris, waiting to be rescued. He came home. His friend with the torch did not.
My father’s survival meant that I was lucky enough to grow up with him in my life. I have many beautiful memories of him doing anything to make us – me, my mother, and two younger brothers – laugh. But among these wonderful memories are the more troublesome recollections of a man who struggled to come to terms with the disaster he had survived. Why did he make it off the rig and his friends did not? How was he able to get out when he had resigned himself to dying alone in the smoke? Why did he live and the man with the torch did not?
As part of his early attempts to come to terms with his experience, my father travelled to Wales to attend the funeral of his friend whose torchlight saved his life. I cannot imagine what that was like.
In a lifelong mental battle with Piper Alpha, my father struggled with alcoholism, broken relationships, and a world not yet ready to understand post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I watched on as he recovered and relapsed, in a vicious cycle of positivity then pain, positivity then pain. In 2011, he fell victim to his alcoholism and died from related health complications. His name was Mark Archibald Reid. He was 48 years old.
Accidents and safety breaches like those on Piper Alpha cost more than financial damages. The families of those who died endure the loss of a loved one. The survivors are haunted by the memory of their unshakeable ordeal.
Since that fateful day, safety training has evolved significantly to ensure every preventative measure is taken to avoid such incidents from happening again. Great progress has been made but there is still much to be done to protect us from history repeating itself.
My father’s story is a sad one but it has become my inspiration. In my professional life as a scientist, I now work to affect positive changes to safety training practices in dangerous workspaces. And as I start my own family, I think again about how my father thought of me during his escape from the clutches of certain death. I realise that I cannot turn back the clock on the tragedy of the past, but I can use the privilege of my profession to help make sure we stop these accidents from ever happening again.