Iain Letham, Hero of the Piper Alpha Disaster

Piper alpha

Published Jul 2, 2023 2:54 PM by Cameron Livingstone, SE Australia Branch of The Nautical Institute

Iain Letham will be remembered as a hero of the Piper Alpha disaster of 1988. Letham was awarded the George Cross - the highest civilian decoration for bravery - for his courage rescuing survivors of the burning, crumbling rig. Letham piloted a rescue boat into the inferno, rescuing survivors from the water. He was the sole survivor from the crew of his boat.

Piper Alpha was a North Sea oil & gas rig which exploded and burned on July 6, 1988.  The explosion was caused after a blanked pipe pressurised with highly flammable gas ruptured, sparking a huge inferno which quickly destroyed the control room.  From then on, the out-of-control fire was doomed to consume the rig. 167 people perished in the disaster. 

Iain Letham was an unremarkable Scottish sailor aboard the supply vessel Sandhaven, located near the rig. As the inferno unfolded, Letham piloted a rescue boat to find survivors around the exploding, crumbling rig - showing total disregard for his own safety. While the rescue boat was approaching, the MCP01 pipeline ruptured and exploded, shooting flames 300 feet into the air. The heat was so intense it melted steelwork on standby vessels hundreds of meters away. The explosion killed everyone onboard the boat except Letham.

The intense oil fire melted Letham's lifejacket and hardhat and blew Letham into the water. He was met by Bob Ballantyne, another survivor, who chillingly said "I just wanted someone to talk to, or somebody to be with me, that I wouldn’t be by myself. That there was another human being there."

167 people were killed on Piper Alpha, most of whom died after becoming trapped in the accommodation module. When the fire outside reached thousands of degrees, the accommodation module cooked like an oven. One survivor near the rig deck tried to reach the accommodation module where the crew were sheltering, later saying "I just didn't want to die alone."

Letham was awarded the George Medal - the highest civilian decoration for bravery. He was among seven who received it (two of whom perished in the disaster). Deirdre Michie, the CEO of Oil & Gas UK, said: “Iain Letham saved many lives that night with his courageous response to the unfolding disaster. We remain in his debt for the bravery he showed then, and for his ongoing commitment to rescue and recovery in the years following."

Letham died from cancer in 2017, aged 56. He will not be forgotten.

Cameron Livingstone MNI is the secretary of the South Eastern Australia Branch of The Nautical Institute, which covers the region of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The Institute's aim is to promote professionalism, best practice and safety throughout the maritime industry and to represent the interests of its members.


The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.