Oil Rig Explosion Kills as Many as 166
North Sea Disaster May Be Worst Ever
ABERDEEN, Scotland--Rescuers abandoned hope yesterday of finding more survivors of an explosion and towering fire that consumed the Piper Alpha platform and killed up to 166 people in the world's worst oil rig disaster.
Ships continued combing the North Sea's frigid waters, but when asked whether the rescuers had given up hope, Energy Department Minister Peter Morrison said, "to be honest, yes. At this stage there is very little hope indeed."
The rig owners said the probable cause of the conflagration was a gas leak, which a survivor said was "screaming like a banshee" seconds before the blast Wednesday night.
Officials said 65 rig workers survived, 16 bodies had been recovered and 150 people were missing, including two lifeboat men who vanished into the flames while on a rescue mission.
Survivors told of having to choose between trying to survive the flames in hopes aid would come and plunging 150 feet into a blanket of burning oil that covered water cold enough to kill.
"It was a case of fry and die or jump and try," said Roy Carey, 45, who jumped.
Rescue pilots described flames up to 400 feet high. The fire still flickered nearly 24 hours later.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government promised "a very, very deep and far-reaching inquiry." Questions arose about safety stadards in the high-risk industry, and opposition politicians claimed safety was neglected.
Occidental Petroleum, owner of the Piper Alpha platform, said it believed a gas leak was to blame, but days or weeks would be needed to determine what caused and ignited it. Occidental said the three-quarters of the 649-foot-high rig was destroyed.
Derek Ellington, a 45-year-old rigger, said he was in a workshop near the control center when he heard the scream of "two gas leaks almost simultaneously, and about 30 seconds later there was the first explosion. It wiped out the control room and that was it. Our nerve center was gone."
Andrew Sneddon, a university lecturer on offshore engineering in Aberdeen, said, "we can only assume there was a leak of some sort. Basically, you are sitting on top of two highly flammable products--oil and gas. A leak or a spill is a potential hazard. It is extremely difficult to say what could have set it off."
The number of men still missing and the dim prospects for finding them alive seem certain to make the Piper Alpha explosion the worst oil rig disaster ever, surpassing the 123 deaths when the Alexander L. Kielland platform capsized in Norway's North Sea waters in March, 1980.