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05 Jul 13 15:19

When the North Sea platform Piper Alpha exploded on 6 July 1988 killing 167 men, Brian Krause was given the seemingly impossible job of capping the wells and putting out the fires. 25 years on he recalls the tragedy.

As sideman to the legendary Red Adair, well control expert Brian Krause along with Raymond Henry had the job of closing down Piper Alpha immediately after the explosion. A veteran fire fighter who has capped dangerous wells around the world and went on to work in two gulf wars, Krause (aged 57) says Piper Alpha remains his toughest assignment ever.

“I was in that business for 30 years controlling over 1,000 well blow-outs and there was nothing like Piper Alpha. Twenty five years on I can remember the smells, the sounds and the feeling I had when Raymond Henry and I were swung onto Piper Alpha in a basket, the only two people to set foot on it after it exploded.

“At that point we knew there were 167 people missing but we didn’t know how many people were still on there. Wells were leaking and some were on fire. When Raymond and I stepped onto the flare boom we didn’t know how long the rig was going to remain standing. We had no idea how much damage was done to the structure below the waterline.”

Twelve of Piper Alpha’s 36 wells were on fire and after clearing away the debris on the platform Krause and Henry capped them all in 36 days - despite heavy seas and hazardous working conditions. “The more we cleared the debris, the greater the fires,” Krause remembers. “We knew we were on hallowed ground after that scale of loss of life.”

Krause and Henry’s success in capping Piper Alpha’s leaking wells in such adverse conditions has gone down as one of the greatest salvage missions in the history of the energy business. Their action – some of it untested - saved Occidental Petroleum, the platform’s operator, hundreds of million dollars. “We tried some things we had never done before, like running an inflatable packer through the fire into a wellhead and it worked,” Krause says.

A $3.6bn insurance loss in today’s values, Piper Alpha was at the time the insurance industry’s costliest man-made catastrophe. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Lloyd’s underwriters were praised for the speed with which they paid claims. “Internal directives and special schemes in place meant that the majority of claims were paid within six months,” remembers underwriter Andrew Hedges, a 30 year veteran of the marine reinsurance business, who is now head of marine treaty at Canopius.

But the unprecedented scale of losses, spread across multiple insureds and reinsureds in different geographies and diverse lines of business, was a massive shock to the system at the time. “An important legacy of the Piper Alpha loss is that it contributed to increased transparency in the market,” Hedges says. “It made everyone aware of the potential problems around risk aggregation and accumulation.”

Piper Alpha also proved to be a catalyst for change in the UK offshore energy industry, ushering in big changes in safety management, regulation and training. A lasting legacy of the tragedy was the improvements made to failsafe controls on rigs, including comprehensive shutdown and diversion measures, as Krause points out.

Ironically, Brian Krause doubts whether safety regulations today would allow him and his partner Raymond Henry to board a blazing rig as they did 25 years ago. “Safety should be the supreme objective for policymakers but I find it difficult to understand someone sitting in an office telling me what’s too dangerous.”

“The industry as a whole is much safer,” he reflects. “But when things go wrong you have to call in the experts and you have to listen to them. If you don’t the size of the loss grows exponentially. We bring experience and planning. Let us do our job. We’ll tell you if it is too dangerous.”

Krause himself now works in the insurance business, for the energy insurance broker J.H. Blades. He frequently works alongside well control specialists to advise on loss prevention and management with clients. “Clients have a tendency to listen to someone like me, who’s been out there and seen some stuff,” Krause says. “I’m enjoying it.”

Brian Krause and Andrew Hedges spoke at the conference Piper Alpha 25 Years On hosted by Lloyd's and Clyde & Co on Thursday, 4 July. The event looked at the implications of Piper Alpha for the insurance and energy industries, as well as touching on the health and safety changes since 1988.

Read more about the Piper Alpha disaster on our website where there are also slides from Lloyd's recent event.

News story:

Slides from the event:

More about Piper Alpha in Lloyd's history section:

Category: Sustainable energy: Fossil fuel

Location: North Sea


Daniel Martin Eckhart - 5 Jul 2013, 7:40 p.m.

Where's the like button when you need it - great story, thanks for sharing! (btw the like button will come!!)

Luis Montoya - 10 Jul 2013, 7:50 p.m.

I was an offshore oil engineer for 16 years, working for Schlumberger, Chevron and Repsol. I run many of the Schlumberger wireline logging jobs in the Piper Field in the early seventies and remember the Piper Alpha catastrophe of July 1988.

In my career, offshore risks were a key concern of ours when designing rigs, pipelines and exploring new wells. Although the operations are far safer today than they were at the time of the Piper Alpha, the most important risks develop when some of the following occurs:
• Blow Outs, that typically develop in fire and consequent destruction.
• Poor maintenance of safety components and systems for they would fail to work otherwise.
• Poor continuous training on safety procedures.
• Poor communication among crew members and most specially when changing shifts.

In my experience, many of the disasters in offshore oil rigs and platforms have a human origin; this was also the case in the Piper Alpha' condensate pump A. The equipment is typically safe nowadays; it is its handling that can bring them unsafe. Often systems have two or three levels of failure mode, i.e., two or three consecutive things must go wrong for the accident to happen. In many cases, amazingly enough, after the first failure, one or more follow due to misinterpretations or mis-management of the safety systems due panic and/or non-observance of the rules. Panic is a human response. We can design better and safer machines… but can we do so on humans?.

Engineering has made many wonders come true, from making natural resources accessible, to blasting through Swiss mountains. But over-regulation, as Krause says, can lead to the stifling of professions. I agree with Krause: "when things go wrong you have to call in the experts. We’ll tell you if it is too dangerous.”

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