'You could only call the scene apocalyptic': The Piper Alpha disaster 25 years on

On the 25th anniversary of the oil rig explosion, a witness talks publicly about the fire for the first time

Paul Berriff remembers the events of 25 years ago as though they were yesterday: the smell of burning oil; the sea burning orange and on fire; the bodies in the water. It was, he says, "apocalyptic". "I've experienced all sorts of tragedies – I'm a survivor of 9/11, I know what it's like not only to witness trauma but to be a casualty myself. But there's nothing, nothing like Piper Alpha," the TV cameraman, who sustained injuries filming near the twin towers, said.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the worst offshore disaster of all time. On 6 July 1988 an explosion ripped through the North Sea oil rig Piper Alpha, and the resulting oil and gas fires which destroyed the platform, also took the lives of 167 of the 228 men working that day. Yesterday, a remembrance service took place in Aberdeen's Hazelhead Park, which included a fly-past from an RAF Sea King helicopter and a roll call of those who perished in the inferno.

For Mr Berriff, an ITV cameraman working at the time on a documentary about the RAF, the events are etched in his memory. Not just because of the horror that he witnessed first-hand on that night or because it happened to be his 42nd birthday, but because he had captured everything on camera.

Based at RAF Lossiemouth in north-east Scotland, Mr Berriff was having dinner with his film crew at a restaurant in a nearby town to celebrate his birthday, when his pager beeped. "I had just finished my prawn cocktail, so I went to the phone and rang the base and they told me they had a call to a fire on an oil platform, 120 miles out in the North Sea," he said.

Heading back to the airbase with his colleague, a sound recordist, they boarded the awaiting rescue helicopter.

"When I got on board, I asked the pilot if he had a better idea about what it was, but all he knew was that it was a fire on a rig. No one had any idea how serious it was."

The RAF had sent out a reconnaissance communication aircraft called a Nimrod, to assess the scene from roughly 12,000ft, to relay information to the rescue crews who were on their way. But it was only within minutes of leaving the base that Mr Berriff knew the situation was unlike anything he or anyone else could have imagined.

"As we were flying out over the Moray Firth, the Nimrod came on the radio and said, 'We're just coasting out over the Moray Firth and we can see the fire.' We couldn't believe what we'd just heard: we'd barely left the coast and the oil rig was still 120 miles away.

"After only 20 minutes we could see the horizon was glowing orange, and as we neared we could see the flames shooting up 350ft into the sky."

Within 10 minutes of the explosion taking place – it was caused by a high-pressure gas leak which ignited and sent a fireball ripping through the platform – the decision was taken to evacuate the rig.

The helicopter Mr Berriff was travelling in should have hovered over the rig in order to begin saving lives, but the heat from the inferno was so great that the helicopter was unable to get anywhere near. "I could feel the heat radiating through the fuselage on the helicopter – and we were still a mile away."

Instead they were called to a standby boat a quarter of a mile from Piper Alpha, to which about 20 survivors had managed to swim to safety through the burning seas.

"We were asked to winch up some of those survivors. These chaps were very badly burnt. I put my camera down and helped the crew to look after the guys. One guy basically had half his face melted off – it was horrific."

Less than a mile away, a specially designed fire-fighting platform called Tharos, with a 100-bed hospital, began pumping water on to Piper Alpha. But the water just evaporated with the heat, and so it could only be used as a hospital.

"The whole scene around you is on fire, these guys were jumping 150-200ft from the top of the blazing platform into a raging cauldron of burning seas, the roaring sound could be heard for miles around like a big blowlamp. The rig continued to groan and there were frequent explosions – one could only describe the scene as apocalyptic."

By 3am Mr Berriff and his crew got the news that there had been about 220 men on board but that only 50 or 60 had managed to get off.

Once Mr Berriff had returned to base he began to look through his footage, which was played on news bulletins the following day. "Once we got it on the editing machines and started watching the footage, no one spoke," he said.

The Cullen inquiry was set up in the aftermath of the disaster to establish what had gone so terribly wrong. It concluded the initial leak was the result of maintenance work being carried out simultaneously on a pump and a safety valve. It was critical of the rig's operator, Occidental, which was found guilty of having poor safety procedures and inadequate maintenance, though no criminal charges were ever brought.

This weekend, in a letter to the industry body Oil and Gas UK to mark the anniversary, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote: "Conditions in the North Sea are some of the harshest anywhere in the world … We will never forget the 167 who lost their lives on 6 July 1988. My thoughts as Aberdeen remembers its loss are with their families and loved ones, the survivors and all those involved on that tragic night."

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