‘Death and Oil’: the deadly cost of oil addiction
Port Townsend author Brad Matsen’s “Death and Oil” is a harrowing account of the 1988 Piper Alpha drilling-platform explosion, which killed 162 crewmen and rescuers and stands as the worst offshore oil tragedy ever. Matsen will discuss his book Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle and Oct. 23 at the Eagle Harbor Book Co. on Bainbridge Island.
‘Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea’
by Brad Matsen
Pantheon, 234 pp., $25.95
In April 2010, national attention focused on the Gulf of Mexico, where an explosion on the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon took the lives of 11 workers and ushered in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Two decades earlier an even worse disaster aboard the Piper Alpha drilling platform in the North Sea killed 162 crewmen and rescuers. Only 61 survived what stands as the worst offshore oil tragedy ever.
Port Townsend writer Brad Matsen (“Jacques Cousteau,” “Descent”) revisits that earlier disaster. “Death and Oil” is a spare, fast-paced account of the Piper Alpha tragedy as riveting as it is unsettling.
Through interviews with survivors and their families and an exhaustive review of the record, Matsen uncovers a disturbing tale of corporate negligence, criminal disregard and a reckless drive for profit. At the same time he brings to light uncommon acts of heroism among survivors and rescuers as well as those who work for increased safety standards in this most dangerous of professions.
A poignant subtext in Matsen’s story is the human cost of our 150-year addiction to oil.
At the center of it all looms Occidental Petroleum’s owner Armand Hammer and his audacious scheme for cornering the most productive offshore oil fields on the planet. His Piper Alpha oil platform 100 miles off the coast of Scotland was the world’s largest. Producing up to $4 million in oil a day, it was also the most profitable: “a cash machine,” in the author’s words, “that had pumped $25 billion into Occidental’s coffers in its fourteen years of existence.”
On the night of July 6, 1988, an error resulting from shoddy safety procedures led to a leaking gas line and subsequent explosion. Multiple and accelerating explosions followed. The last, caused by Occidental’s reluctance to place an emergency shutdown on a large pressurized gas line to Piper Alpha, resulted in a catastrophic blast that engulfed and eventually collapsed the 550-foot drill rig. The explosions sent nearly two thirds of the men on board to hellish deaths.
An aging fishing trawler that Occidental used for its standby safety vessel proved hopelessly ineffective after the blast. Other safety systems failed. In fact the official report of the accident “was rife with other condemnations of Occidental and its managers.”
Matsen meticulously details the circumstances surrounding the catastrophe. But more than that, he sensitively portrays the personal lives of many victims, survivors and their anguished families. His reports from the nearby town of Aberdeen, where many of the offshore workers lived, are heartbreaking.
Occidental paid survivors and families of the deceased some $200 million in settlements. When the families and survivors association asked the company for a donation for a memorial sculpture in Aberdeen, Armand Hammer refused. No criminal charges were brought against the company or its executives.
Bob Ballantyne, whose escape from Piper Alpha is itself an epic story, framed the larger moral issue succinctly. “People all over the world have to understand that men’s lives are the true cost of oil.”
Reflecting on our part as consumers in the ever-more-extreme worldwide rush for oil, Matsen writes, “I have no doubt that Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon will happen again. Regardless of how we spread the blame, we can no longer ignore what is done on our behalf.”