90 people airlifted to safety after fire erupts on North Sea oil platform

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A major evacuation operation was launched yesterday after a fire broke out on a remote North Sea oil platform. Ninety of the 159 people on board the Thistle Alpha platform, 120 miles north-west of Shetland, were airlifted to safety.

Oil workers were later returned to the rig after the fire was extinguished at around 11am on Sunday. For those in the industry the blaze evoked chilling memories of the Piper Alpha disaster which claimed the lives of 167 men in July 1988 and led to a raft of safety measure improvements. The North Sea tragedy remains the world's worst-ever offshore oil disaster.

Despite those improvements, yesterday's dramatic events come just a week after health and safety inspectors warned the North Sea offshore industry to tighten-up safety on its oil and gas installations.

A damning report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed maintenance of appliances was not being given enough attention. Nearly 100 North Sea installations were inspected over three years. In more than half the platforms the overall state of the plant was found to be poor. The report accused some senior managers of failing to make ongoing maintenance a priority.

Seven helicopters, including two from Norway, and a Nimrod from RAF Kinloss were scrambled to rescue the workers from the Thistle Alpha rig after a mayday call was sent out from the platform.

But the operation was later scaled down as the fire was brought under control, RAF Kinloss spokesman Michael Mulford said. He said the rescue operation was made more difficult because weather conditions were "not great", with a strong north-westerly wind. Workers were airlifted to three neighbouring oil platforms five or six miles away.

The platform is operated by Swedish-based Lundin Petroleum, which is involved in oil exploration and production across the globe.

The rig underwent inspections in May and earlier this month, an HSE spokeswoman said yesterday morning, although it is not thought that any serious problems were found.

There were no reported casualties.