On Piper Alpha, the biggest off shore oil rig on the North Sea, July 6, 1988 began as a normal day. But just before midnight, a series of explosions rocked the platform: Most of it was blown out of existence; one hundred and sixty-two of the two hundred and twenty-six men who worked on it died; the inferno burned for weeks. Brad Matsen talked to the survivors, their families, Occidental Petroleum, rescue teams, fire fighters, and hospital workers and now gives us, for the first time, the whole story of the human error and corporate malfeasance behind this tragedy.
Here is a full accounting of the catastrophe from its seed in a slow gas leak to the eventual investigation into its causes to the pain it continues to inflict on survivors and the families of the dead. Written with novelistic pace and detail, it is a riveting, gut-wrenching saga, never more timely nor important, and certain to be read and discussed with immense interest and urgency.

“Matsen’s extraordinary and captivating account of the Piper Alpha catastrophe makes visible the terrible price we pay for oil. It offers a compelling look into the embattled lives of men who spend their lives on the verge of an emergency, and shows us what happens when a place of work—in truth a war zone—becomes an inferno in an instant.” —Rikki Ducornet, author of the novels Netsuke and Gazelle

Death and Oil masterfully reveals the terrible human toll of our petroleum dependency. By taking us aboard the Piper Alpha oil rig and into the lives of its doomed men, its heroes and its haunted survivors, Brad Matsen has given us narrative history at its best and a cautionary tale for our time.” — Mitchell Zuckoff, New York Times bestselling author of Lost in Shangri-La

Kirkus Reviews

A detailed, up-close account of a 1988 oil-rig explosion in the North Sea off the coast pf Scotland coast that killed more than 150 men. Matsen (Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King, 2009, etc.) began researching the Piper Alpha oil rig, operated by Occidental Petroleum Corporation, during 2008, two years before the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Naturally, last year’s tragedy makes the author’s research especially relevant. Matsen’s thorough reporting is fueled by outrage, as he makes the case that our addiction to oil as an energy source almost guarantees further fatalities because exploration, capture, refining and transportation are inherently dangerous. The narrative opens with the depression of Piper Alpha survivor Bill Barron, who reappears throughout the text. Dozens of other crew members appear as well, creating a challenge for Matsen to keep the narrative under control. At appropriate junctures, the author breaks away from the occurrences on the massive oil rig to explore what North Sea drilling did to life in Scotland, with the heaviest impact on the coastal city of Aberdeen. After chronicling the horrific multistage explosions that consumed so many lives, the author on those manning nearby seaworthy vessels who tried to rescue the Piper Alpha crew. The aftermath of the disaster, including capping the drilling apparatus and extinguishing the fires, receives minute attention as well. The investigation by UK authorities did little to satisfy public outcry, and certainly did little to enhance oil-rig safety around the globe. There are plenty of villains in the narrative, though Matsen concentrates on Armand Hammer, who came to the oil industry during advanced middle age, aggressively built Occidental Petroleum from a tiny California-based company to a worldwide behemoth during the 1960s and ’70s and staked so much capital on the North Sea drilling that safety concerns did not receive adequate attention.

A searing indictment of human greed mixed with memorable sagas of death and survival.

Publishers Weekly

With the same meticulous research employed in books on sea explorer Jacques Cousteau and the mysteries of the oceans, Matsen (Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King) takes on the devastating 1988 Piper Alpha oil rig tragedy. His two-year investigation casts a wide net, pulling in accounts from company bosses, rig foremen and workers, first responders, medical staff, and government officials in putting together a comprehensive view of the fatal fire and explosion abroad the rig, which killed 162 men in the North Sea. Matsen notes the Piper Alpha complex was not only a drilling and production platform but a junction station for moving gas to other platforms. When he details the unfortunate history of fires, explosions, even collapses, of rigs, the Piper Alpha disaster is put into context, making rig work one of the most hazardous jobs on the planet. In the end, Matsen’s remarkable book is a stunning tribute to the survivors and their families, who banded valiantly together against the corporate giant, Occidental Petroleum, which absolved itself of all blame in the costly event.


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1 Response to “Death and Oil: A True Story of the Piper Alpha Disaster on the North Sea”



  1. 1 Habit vs. Ritual | Tamar Coaching Trackback on October 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm

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