A riveting, harrowing document of the night the Piper Alpha oil platform exploded.
It's rare that a feature documentary even superficially linked to the world of commercial oil is going to hold back from lambasting this controversial domain. And yet Anthony Wonke's film Fire In The Night does manage to suppress any and all ire in the service of chronicling the horrendous events of the night of 6 July, 1988, when the Piper Alpha oil platform located in the North Sea off the coast of Aberdeen was blown to smithereens.
Even with a 25 year partition, the memories of the disaster via a clutch of the 61 lucky survivors remain vivid and raw. There are various occasions here where the men interviewed beg for a moment's respite as they allow their tears to flow freely. The event itself and the manner in which it was caused are presented in a similar way to how documents of the sinking of the Titanic have been presented in the past, particularly an intricately researched fiction work like Roy Ward Baker's A Night To Remember (1958).
The sadness is amplified by an opening salvo of positivity and warmth: Wonke co-ops a rousing corporate video which presents the complex construction of the platform and follows it with evocative camcorder footage of the all-male staff working hard and playing hard. A third party arrives for a routine hardware update, but someone, somewhere ("they" are never named) decides that it can be done without stopping the oil and gas pumping operation. Shortly afterwards, everything goes boom.
Through the testimonies of the survivors, you get the impression that safety measures put in place for such an event nowhere near catered for the reality of the situation. The corporate video highlights the focus on emergency drills and the neat manner in which the men would file into lifeboats if anything untoward were to happen. The lifeboats, it turns out, where the first things bust.
The rescue mission ended up being futile, but this is not down to poor decision making or errors in judgement. Even the sea was relatively calm. No, when the boats and helicopters finally arrived, no training of memorising of process had readied them for the what was actually happening. The intense heat meant that the they couldn't get near to the platform. The lack of a single purpose exit hatch meant that the mean were spread all across the complex. And the fact this wasn't just one explosion, but hundreds of small ones meant that the situation was changing by the minute.
There is no finger pointing as things rap up and the fire begins to smoulder, but there is the very subtle suggestion that had the oil companies been able to curb their lust for black gold for just a day or two, none of this may have happened. Formally, the film lets the words evoke the images, but there is much footage and photography from the night. The memories of the crew who managed to pull through – some having jumped 175 feet from a helipad and into a burning briny – take us right into the guts of this towering inferno.
Document of a disaster.
Bracing, upsetting and politically outraged in the most subtle way possible.
Covers its chosen subject with aplomb. Very robust.