an original podcast by SafetyCulture
We all accept a level of risk - in our lives, in our jobs. A baseline of risk is inevitable. But what happens when your baseline
starts to shift? When you and everyone around you deviates from what is safe, bit by little bit?
When the cameras are gone you can’t see the ripple effect that carries on through the decades after a major accident. Why do some people cope better than others, and should we assess risk not just in terms of the likelihood of accidents but the risk of lasting trauma?
Claire Stewart: Aberdeen is known as the Granite City… its old buildings cut from the grey stone mined at the now defunct quarry on Rubislaw Hill.
Locals will try and convince you that when the sun comes out everything sparkles silver because of the mica, but on most days it feels grey and heavy.
St Nicholas’ church is no exception - it looms up out of a graveyard tucked just behind the spot where buskers play bagpipes in the main square of town.
As soon as I walk in, it’s clear why Gina Sims refers to it as the offshore chapel…
Gina Sims: I don't know if you know about the offshore chapel, it's in the Kirk of Saint Nicholas in Aberdeen. There's a stained glass window - I can't remember if the red ones are all the other platforms that were there at the time of Piper, or if the white ones were the other ones, but the one that was different was the one that was Piper.
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Claire: The window itself is high and dominates the chapel inside the main church.
It depicts the town of Aberdeen, it’s coastline and the waves of the North Sea. Its vibrant blues and greens are the first thing you see as you enter the Kirk.
Below the window is a half-burned candle and a plaque for the 45 people who were killed when a Chinook helicopter went down.
It was ferrying passengers back from the Brent field when it crashed, just twenty months before Piper happened.
Church sermon: Let us pray, Gracious God throughout the ages you have transformed sickness into health and death into life. Open us to the power … [cont]
Claire: The fact that Piper happened so soon after the Chinook disaster only made everything worse, had an impact on the same community.
Gina Sims was the driving force behind the offshore women’s support group which earned them the nickname the North Sea Samaritans. She becomes emotional even now, when she talks about the impact she saw.
Gina: It could have been any platform, it could have been anybody's husband. And it runs deep. I mean, I met a friend on Monday in Aberdeen, she now lives in Spain, she worked for Wood Group, in personnel at the time, and she'd come through the horrors of the helicopter, the Chinook. She lost 10 men in that, they and Piper. And she came over to specifically go to the 30th memorial, because she says, "I can't ever forget them. I can see their faces to this day. I can see these guys that used to come in and check in, 'Oh, you're going for a medical, right? You be on time, the next time.'" And all the banter that you had with them. She says, "I can see them all." She says, "And I'll never forget."
Claire: This is Baseline, by SafetyCulture. I’m Claire Stewart.
Specialist trauma psychologist David Alexander says one thing people underestimate is how resilient humans can be when things hit the fan.
People band together, survivors are supported and everyone is alert to trauma after major disasters. But as time wears on, the ripple effect still reverberates, even after the companies involved and the news channels seem to have forgotten.
Inside St Nicholas’, near the entrance there’s a large display cabinet. It has photos and the order of service from every one of the commemoration memorials held since 1988. David Alexander has been to his fair share of them.
He says there’s a process to the aftermath, and it plays out differently for survivors, families of victims, and the community around them. Here’s Steve Rae.
Steve Rae: I remember talking to David and him saying, "you need to come along." I said, "I don't, I'm fine." He said, "Well, it would be good to see you." I said, "I'll think about it." But I knew I just didn't want to go along. Then I got a phone call from Ann, who was the other counsellor, saying, "Steve, we'd really like you to come along." I told David, I'm really okay. They go, "Yeah, you may think you're okay, but I'm not sure you are. It would be good just to see you along." I said, "Look, I'm not coming along." They go, "Well, maybe it would be good for others to see that you're okay, because they're not."
Claire: David looks like the kind of fellow you’d find reading periodicals in the local library - until you find out he specialises in deradicalising fundamentalist Islamic youths and training hostage negotiators.
Everyone I interviewed spoke about him with a kind of reverence.
Gina: And thank God we had David Alexander, because it was David Alexander that helped so many of those that did survive pick up the pieces and have some sort of life they wouldn't have had, because psychological services just weren't prepared for this sort of thing in this country.
The ripple effect was huge. It wasn't just the victims, and the victims' families, the workers and the offices that knew them, that we cleared fortnightly, gave them their date for going back offshore, their flight number, things like that. It was people like that that, it just was absolutely massive, the ripple from it.
Claire: So I invite him for a chat over a glass of wine to find out how, and why, the ripple effect changes people.
David Alexander first heard about the Piper Alpha disaster about 10 hours after the explosion, on July 7 1988.
David: People think this is a hackneyed, contrived anecdote. It's not actually. I'd heard about it on the morning TV. But I had a clinic that morning and I thought "oh Jesus," but at that time the real scale of it had not come through. And I'll always remember the STV newscaster who I know, and she played it honestly cool, because she didn't really know. Nobody really knew.
And I was doing a clinic, and there's a delightful old lady at my clinic. She said "You know Doctor, I think you should be up the road helping these men at A&E."
Claire: At 2am the Offshore Specialist team from Aberdeen Royal Infirmary assembled and choppered to Piper to stabilise survivors ready for the trip back.
Reports say the flames could be seen from more than 80 miles away as the choppers flew in.
Over the next six hours, all the survivors were airlifted out, but as one BBC journalist waiting at the heliport recalls, “the awful thing was that there were not that many helicopters coming back”.
As the last choppers were coming in, David took the advice of his patient and called through to the Police, to check if he should go up to the accident and emergency department.
David: I phoned the bobbies, because I worked for the bobbies, and I said "look, I don't know what I've got to offer." And he said, "Oh David, you've dealt with lots of bodies." Because I've dealt with terminal care unit. And he said "Look, come up, all these bodies, and bits." And I said "Okay." I do remember the choppers were starting to come in, and they were survivors. About 57 or something. But then there's other choppers with the rest.
Claire: I only met with survivors of Piper Alpha during my time in Scotland. In news reporting there’s a particular term journos use when they’re sent out to talk to the families of the victims.
It’s called a doing a death knock and you get special training on how to get the most out of it, if you do them. I’ve never done one before and even this long after the event I find it hard to ask families to rehash what they have been through.
So I ask David about what it’s like for the people left behind.
David: Occasionally, with disasters like Piper, it's actually not funny, and I don't want this to sound facetious or funny, some ladies believe that their husband was a strong swimmer, he'd have amnesia, and he'd been picked up by a Norwegian trawler. So, they, they try to find a nice way out of this awful catastrophe.
There was another one a guy, a young Welshman, and the family flew up from Wales. And, we tried to explain that, from all the accounts, witness accounts, survivors' accounts, this young lad hadn't made it. And, one of the family said, "But Garreth plays rugby for Cardiff." You know? God. You know, I wouldn't, so there, I mean, I hope that comes over as-
Not, not critical or being cheeky. It's just, the awful plight of people who want to find a, a happy ending, you know, and the sun's shining again. When, sadly, we all knew the sun was not going to shine again.
Claire: David says what’s often overlooked is the impact something like Piper has beyond victims and survivors.
He lists a roll call of community member’s you’d never otherwise think of - the receptionist at the hospital on the morning the survivors and bodies were brought in ... the women on the Occidental switchboard fielding calls for updates during the emergency.
A disaster the scale of Piper unsettles everyone:
David: I mean, guys, for example, who would have been on that shift in Piper, but changed it. People who feel guilty. Okay? People who are on the Cormorant Alpha, which was a cloned version of Piper. So, I spoke to an engineer once. And, he was worried. He says, "If we've got a basic flaw in Piper, there's one in Cormorant. So, there are these kind of things. People, professionals, nearly always blame themselves for not doing enough. "If only I'd paid more attention to the CPR training. If only we'd got there quicker. If only."
Claire: Gina saw it first hand, over and over again after every disaster, when she was manning the volunteer helpline OWLS set up.
Gina: I could have sat for six weeks solid because I didn't have anybody else trained for the helpline bar me at that time, and I could have sat six weeks solid just taking calls. And it was calls from mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends from previous disasters that here it was again. It was calls from offshore workers for the grace of God, you know, go I.
Claire: I ask David if it’s a thing, that people’s response to trauma changes over time. He pulls a paper napkin towards him on the table, and whips out a pen.
David: If you look at the curve of adjustment, if I draw it for you. If that's your normal line of coping, nice straight line, right? When your disaster hits you, we actually cope remarkably well, it's what we call the honeymoon phase.
You know, people come from all over the world to have all the top guys come, girls come, and help, and so, you're coping very well. Then, the cavalry have to go away. And, for some after Piper, there was Lockaby. And, people said me, "Sarg, Prof, are we the forgotten survivors?" I said, "No, you're not forgotten." But, the -
Claire: Sort of.
David: Yeah, I know, right. But, the worst thing is you'll see a dip below that straight line, and that's the time when you've got legal inquiry, media intrusion, blame ascribing, a, arguments over compensation, a, and when the lawyers get involved it can be a melee. So, it becomes what we, sometimes call the Second Disaster.
Claire: Most people don’t even know about the Second Disaster, and the triggers will be different for everyone.
David: You've nothing to hide behind. Then your suddenly exposed to another dimension to your tragedy. It's different when you're in your uniform, white coat or things like that. You have your armour, I call it - shorn of that, the memories hit you from a different angle and there is a defence sometimes people shut things out. I mean, we found with torture victims. A lot of psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers say they were Freud, he must always talk it out. Actually this is not true. There are some people who do not benefit from talking things through, so you do not sign lights in their eyes because I'm stilling barbital I say, now tell me what it was like, this is bullshit.
Claire: Geoff Bollands was in the control room the night Piper exploded. He spent a long time ignoring the impact the event had on him. Like Steve, he didn’t really talk about it.
But a friend eventually convinced him to write a book about the experience, to coincide with the disaster’s 30th anniversary.
Geoff: I've got a copy if you -
Claire: Yeah, that'd be fantastic. I'm really interested in it, actually -
Geoff: Did you say Lord Cullen had a book, had a copy of it?
Claire: Yeah, yeah, so that's when he went out, especially after the interview, and wandered off out in to the house, and found it and brought it back, and had your business card with it.
Geoff: I saw him a few years ago they were opening a new centre, and Lord Cullen opened it.
Claire: Oh, fantastic. He's a very cool guy.
Geoff: Yeah, he was good.
Geoff: Handled the inquiry well.
Claire: Writing actually helped him process the trauma, all these years later. But he’s quick to admit he had no real appreciation at the time of just how much the experience had changed him.
Geoff I glossed over PTSD, I just said to my wife and everybody else "There's nothing the matter with me, it's everybody else who's out of step." But I wasn't particularly good to live with. People say I'm not good to live with now, but there you are. I was even worse then.
Claire: I ask David if he sees this a bit, and how a trauma impacts families:
David: Dreadfully. I find that in almost, not all, most traumas, the survivor often say, you know, "Prof, I'd rather be me, than my wife."
Claire: Since Piper, Geoff’s become a nervous flyer and subjects his family to safety checks whenever they go to hotels.
Geoff: we've all got, I think, in the back our mind, all have this thing that it will never happen to me. That's changed because for example, when I go in a hotel, I'll work out where the safety exits are, where the fire thing is … My wife stopped laughing at me about it because she knows I do it. I say to her, "We all know how to get out of here." And I've got in my own mind how I will get out of there if I couldn't see. Which I never, ever did before.
Claire: I’d also seen a newspaper story about how he’d physically dragged his wife out of a DIY store because the noise of the tannoy PA system tripped something in him.
Geoff: I've got a really good memory for things, but that came from my wife. My wife won't talk about it, but a friend who edited the book for me spoke to my wife and did an interview with her, and she said that. That was news to me, up till a couple years ago. But I can imagine it happening, because the Tannoy used to go off all the time on the platform.
Claire: He’s got no problem talking about it now - and he’s spoken about Piper at conferences around the world… But I do notice as we talk, his left hand rests on the desk and he’s subconsciously worrying away at a tissue clenched in his fist.
Claire: I take a walk down to Waterloo Quay in Aberdeen. The sun’s shining and the water’s sparkling. Behind tall wire fences forklifts and cranes work in tandem to hoist goods on to standby vessels before they head out to the rigs.
Men wearing the uniform of a Norwegian company wander around on an enormous rescue boat.
They’re laughing and relaxed as it comes in to dock. When I ask people to talk about life offshore, the first thing they do is recount some funny story about mucking around with their mates, and then they get nostalgic about the camaraderie of life on the rigs.
Gina says the shared experiences offshore turn co-workers into brothers.
The flip side is that it can be isolating to try and share those same experiences with family and friends who can’t really understand. I heard a lot about the breakdown of families in the wake of Piper - multiple divorces, alcoholism, men committing suicide years after the event.
I ask Steve about the impact Piper had on his girlfriend. She was four months pregnant when it happened with their first child.
Steve: You can tape this bit if you want but I'm really not going to talk about it. There's two things I'm not going to talk about, I'm not going to talk about the impact on my family, my siblings and my mom. And I'm not going to talk about the impact on my girlfriend at the time because that is something that's very personal and I don't think they'd be particularly pleased to hear me talk about that. I'll talk about anything else, anything, but I will not talk about that side of it.
Claire: So I ask about his siblings, just in case
Steve: I think it probably impacted them more than I understood. My mom was a widow very young, she'd had a tremendous loss in her life as a young mother. I decided right off the bat that I was going to bring her no grief.
Claire: He says that’s why his first thought once he was on the rescue vessel was to call his mum.
Steve: My mother never spoke about it openly, it was just one of those things you don't speak about. But I know from now, that day, they all thought very differently.
Claire: In Aberdeen, locals are wary of outsiders who swing through, asking questions and rehashing Piper. Outsiders just like me.
Even Steve baulks when I ask him to detail what he saw, and smelt, and heard on the night.
In not so many words, he tells me it’s disaster porn, and to an extent he’s right.
Steve: That is much more compelling to sell stories than it is to say, well, hey, this is a fact. That's the challenge we've always had over the years is, you give some factual information and it gets lost in the sensationalization.
But by the end of our interview I manage to get him to admit there might be some merit in rehashing the horror he witnessed. Because it keeps the story alive in people’s memories, and is a constant reminder for companies to be vigilant about what goes on in their own workplaces.
As Steve sees it, the night Piper blew up, it reset his own baseline of safety, and he wants it to do the same for everyone else.
Steve: For me corporate memory is poor because it depends on legacy. …. Leadership by default is dependent on the individual in question.
Claire: Steve is now part of the management tier, working as a leader at Well-Safe Solutions, which specialises in helping companies shut down wells.
Steve: Am I an example of a good leader? I’m probably better at it now because of my experience, because it’s difficult for me to deviate from my known experience, because it’s real for me. My corporate memory is burned.
Claire: In a perverse kind of way it makes you question whether we need another accident to reset the baseline. Steve doesn’t disagree.
I wonder if it makes him frustrated to watch more recent catastrophes play out … like the Grenfell Tower fire.
Especially when you find out they happened because people normalised unsafe practices, which makes accidents inevitable.
[Audio of the Challenger disaster]
American sociologist Diane Vaughn coined the term normalisation of deviance. It came from her investigation into the Challenger space shuttle accident that killed seven astronauts in 1986.
“No-one was expecting anything to go wrong,” she said when it turned out NASA managers ignored warnings from the space-shuttle engineers that it was too cold, and too dangerous, to launch.
Since then what she called group-think and normalisation has led to a number of accidents as Lord Cullen reminds me:
Lord Cullen: There are examples in the United Kingdom. There was a problem in one or two places where there were major accidents and it become the norm just to ignore alarms or ignore signs ...now that is terribly dangerous and insidious because people get used to things and then they get, their attention becomes blunted, very dangerous.
It happened most recently with the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017.
The disaster killed 72 people. Why did the fire spread so quickly? The investigation found that building management had decided to update the building using a cheaper form of cladding than was originally recommended.
One of the reasons it wasn’t the preferred material was because it was much less safe than other options. But it seems like management didn’t take that into account.
Geoff: You just can't believe that. You can't believe that anybody put flammable cladding on the outside. If I drove past Grenfell Tower, and someone says to me, "Is that cladding flammable or inflammable?" I would say, "Oh, it would be inflammable in the building regulations." Oh no, it's inflamma- , no it's flammable, oh no; I bet you it isn't. It's unbelievable.
Claire: That’s Geoff, when I asked him whether it was traumatic for him to see news coverage of people caught in new disasters.
I ask Steve the same, and David Alexander. They all talk about the fact safety protocol in Grenfell was for people to stay put in their apartments rather than try and escape the building.
Geoff: I'm not criticising the fire services, firies do a good job, but the advice to stay where you are, it's unbelievable. My advice to anybody is get out, as quick as you can.
The same thing had happened on Piper. In the event of an emergency, men were told to stay put and wait to be evacuated.
David: Piper was gas and oil, so we have some idea what it's going to be like. I'm going to run the risk of getting into trouble here, but this is true. I think you'll find in Cullen's report, the instruction from the training institution in eventuality of a potential disaster was to muster in the accommodation area. Those who followed the rule book died.
Claire: David Alexander is right. Men were told to go to the lifeboats and failing that, the dining-room or galley, where they should wait for helicopter evacuation.
David: And those lads who said "Stuff this for a joke, I'm over the side." Now, the one thing we're always taught is don't jump into water from a height. It'll break your neck. Especially if they've got they're inflatable jacket on. Because if they don't do this, the jacket hits the water and decapitates them.
Claire: In both Grenfell and Piper, companies organised their disaster plans based on what they thought to be right at the time.
That a similar issue arose in different industries, nearly thirty years apart makes me think perhaps organisations need to think differently about how they’re assessing the possibility of catastrophic risk, and how they’re planning for it.
Appendix H of the Cullen Report is clinically titled “Schedule of Information Relating to the Deceased”. It’s 22 pages listing the names, occupation, last known whereabouts or point of recovery, and the cause of death for each of those men.
It shows that of those who died on Piper, 81 men were recovered from the accommodation block. The heat and explosions had been so great the whole four story unit had shorn off from the rig and tipped into the water.
Geoff: I think there was about 50-ish Occi personnel on board, maybe, don't know the exact number; there's only six of us survived. Four of us were out working on the night shift, and two of us were still at work as we were working over. All the other personnel were in the accommodation block instead. And they were all killed. And new personnel on the platform who didn't, or took a chance, and got out and jumped off the side, climbed over the side, did a runner, that's where the other 60 survivors came from.
I was on the Silver pit, just watching it go through one explosion after the other. Then I saw the accommodation block fall into the sea, it was like in slow motion, the way it just all collapsed into the sea. And I realised then there was gonna be a lot of fatalities, but I never realised how many fatalities there would be till I was ready to leave the hospital.
Claire: Over three days in October, recovery teams pulled the bodies from inside D Deck where workers had been told to muster. For a number of survivors it re-opened the trauma.
Geoff: It was a few months after, and just seeing it come up, you feel if you look at Seconds From Disaster. I think National Geographic did it, and that shows you it being lifted up, and that is a poignant moment, seeing that come up.
Steve: I was attending quite a few funerals at the time as well, which was not easy because you're going to get that guilt feeling whether you like it or not, it's going to be with you.
Claire: In the months after Piper, Steve threw himself into college, learning computer-aided design. He was fairly sure he didn’t want to go back into the offshore industry.
Steve: I was getting on all right, what we were doing. Some plans for future and all the rest of it. And then they raised the module, accommodation module in October and that just opened up another period of bereft and grief because there was all these guys who had lost their life were in that module.
All of a sudden it was, God, you put all these funerals behind you and here's another 84 coming at you, if you choose to go to 84. I got to that place going, I remember going to three funerals in one day, and thinking, I have to stop this because it's really affecting me.
Claire: Rightly or wrongly, he says, he stopped going to funerals and called it closure.
Steve: I just knew that if I lived in the moment, the moment would haunt me. I also knew that I didn't want to be a victim, I was already a survivor and I felt like I was wearing a badge, everybody was, he was on Piper Alpha.
Claire: So he didn’t talk about Piper for another 25 years.
Steve: There are people out there who live with this, and deal with it much less adequately than I do and I’m very conscious of that, and that’s the guys that don’t really get much mention, of the 61 that survived there’s not 61 left but there’s nothing really about these guys and you talk about mental health and workplace and all this and I think God, I watched, I sat in that outreach room thinking, Jesus Christ, these guys are broken men.
I watched a neighbour who I knew was on Piper, I didn’t know him, but I watched him digging in his garden for months, drinking every day just because he didn’t know what to do with himself.
And it wasn’t until his wife and daughter said ‘we’re leaving you unless you fill in that hole and get your shit together’, and he ended up being one of the models for the monument, and that’s what got him back on target.”
Claire: When I speak to people in Aberdeen, almost the first thing they say was: “oh have you seen the monument yet?” It turns out Steve’s a Trustee of Pound for Piper, the charity that organised it.
So I jump on a bus, out past the granite quarry, past the sports fields, walk past the children’s animal farm at one end of Hazlehead Park, and walk to the rose garden.
Claire [at the memorial]: It’s difficult to imagine 167 people in one spot not coming back it’s a lot. On the base of the statue’s inscribed the name of the men.
Claire: This has been Baseline, from SafetyCulture the makers of iAuditor.
Next episode we’ll look at why the changes made after Piper might not be as effective as they once were, and why many in the industry are counting down to the next disaster.
[Claire reads the names of the men who died on Piper]
02: Four Minutes Past Ten
04: Back to Consciousness
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