July 6th, 1988 – this date is a memorable one because it’s the date of the worst offshore oil disaster in history. It’s the date when people looked on in shock as Piper Alpha, a North Sea oil rig, caught on fire thanks to an improperly sealed gas valve. That fire grew and grew, helped on by one or two explosions, until the rig disappeared into the sea. 167 men were killed on that date, in that place. They were either claimed by the flames or the sea.
Fire In The Night looks at the tragic event, piecing together a timeline of when mistakes occurred, when problems were compounded and how the fire took hold of the rig in a grip that would never be released. It shows some archival footage, and allows a few of the survivors to tell their incredible tales, while also mixing in some intense, reconstructed moments and graphics that help to clarify where people were and how the whole situation unfolded. Important points in the timeline are highlighted, as are different viewpoints from those in the midst of the horror and those who rushed to the rig in an attempt to rescue as many people as possible.
Effective in many ways, director Anthony Wonke knows that he doesn’t have to sensationalise anything here. Viewers will feel the heat blowing off the screen as the disaster begins and then worsens. The whole event is powerful stuff to take in, but the real jaw-dropping moments come from the survivors telling their tales, often trying (and sometimes failing) to stop themselves from becoming too emotional. These men made split-second decisions that saw them live while so many of their friends died, and over the years the real horror of that night has mixed in with a lot of guilt.
It’s a shame that at one point in the movie the survivors are filmed being shown some of the archival footage of themselves that viewers have already seen. This is obviously an emotional moment, as they see their younger selves in the company of friends who didn’t make it, but it’s obviously a crass and manipulative one, in my opinion, that wasn’t needed.
The Piper Alpha disaster led to a huge amount of changes to the health and safety rules and regulations for offshore oil work, changes that have undoubtedly stopped anything like this ever happening again. Yet looking at that patch of the North Sea where the rig once stood shows nothing. There is a memorial sculpture (unveiled by the Queen Mother in 1991) that stands in the Rose Garden of Hazelhead Park in Aberdeen, but for those who don’t live near the area this documentary serves as both a sobering reminder of the tragedy and also an inspiring testament to the fortitude of the men who were there, be they rescuer, survivor or, as the unfolding disaster would dictate, both.
DIRECTOR: ANTHONY WONKE
RUNTIME: 93 MINS APPROX