Piper Alpha: Survivor recalls moment he jumped for his life

Joe Meanen was out of options as he looked over the side of Piper Alpha into the North Sea. A second explosion had just ripped through the doomed platform, a giant fireball now on the move.

The only thing left to do was to jump and Mr Meanen, now 59, threw his life jacket over the side of the rig, took a run and leapt around 175ft into the water.

He says: “It was as if there was just something else pushing me to do that. I don’t know if it was a will to live, or what.

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“I try not to really look into it that much. You can’t explain or comprehend it.”

Joe Meanen survived Piper Alpha by jumping 175ft from the burning platform.Joe Meanen survived Piper Alpha by jumping 175ft from the burning platform.
Joe Meanen survived Piper Alpha by jumping 175ft from the burning platform.

It is said it took Mr Meanen seven seconds to hit the water, such was the height he jumped.

“I realised what was happening and I remember thinking ‘what the f*** have I done?”

Ealier, Mr Meanen and around ten of his colleagues gathered on the roof of the helicopter landing office, one of the highest points of the rig, as fire intensified following the first explosion around 10pm.

He remembers the fresher air and spray from the water cannons bringing him some small relief as layer upon layer of thick smoke made their way towards them.

Joe Meanen seated front left with fellow survivors at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. PIC: Contributed.Joe Meanen seated front left with fellow survivors at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. PIC: Contributed.
Joe Meanen seated front left with fellow survivors at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. PIC: Contributed.

The men had just jumped down to the helideck when the second large explosion erupted, around 20 minutes after the first, creating a fireball some 150 metres wide.

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He says: “It seemed I didn’t have any rational thoughts after that second explosion. It was every man for himself. That was how I reacted. I started climbing up a radio mast but it went nowhere. I was climbing and then I slipped. I just thought ‘that’s me dead now’.

“Something just seemed to take over and I don’t know what it was. I got right back down there to one level below the helideck.

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“I ran over to the north side and looked over. I could see the sea. I took my life jacket off and threw it in the water.

“I took a wee run back and then ran towards the side and pushed myself off as far as I could.”

Mr Meanen rose to the surface, struggling to breath. He’d learned in training not to wear a life jacket if hitting the water from above 25 to 30ft, given the safety aid could break your neck on impact.

“Some people jumped with their life jacket on and survived. Others jumped without them and didn’t survive. How do you explain that?” he asks.

Mr Meanen, who had been working as a scaffolder on Piper Alpha, found himself surrounded by debris in the water from kit blown apart by the explosion, including bits of lifeboat.

He also found a lifejacket, which he believes may have been the one he earlier threw off the side of the platform.

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Piper Alpha raged behind him as he climbed into the remains of a lifeboat, where a small fire was put out by sea water.

He says: “I was looking back at the platform, trying to comprehend what was happening. I was just in a polo shirt and tracksuit bottoms and then I realised my arms had huge blisters on them.

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“The only way I can describe is that I looked like Popeye. My arms were like balloons. It was my burns.”

Mr Meanen was pulled from the water by a Maersk fast rescue craft and taken to the Tharos support vessel, which had a hospital onboard. It had been supporting operations on Piper Alpha at the time of the disaster.

He adds: “We were very fortunate that there was so much traffic in the area. There were supply boats, standby by boats, fast rescue craft.

“I was pulled aboard and I started to feel my injuries, the adrenaline wears off a bit and I vaguely remember being in and out of consciousness.”

After being administered morphine on the Tharos, he was taken to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary where he spent the first 24 hours with a nurse stationed by his bed.

He shared a small room with Roy Carey, from Irvine, who was thrown into the water by the second explosion as he tried to move off the platform by rope.

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Mr Meanen went through four major operations and three smaller procedures on his burns after reaching Aberdeen and remained in hospital for six weeks.

He said his happiness to have survived the tragedy kept pushing him through.

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Mr Meanen says: “I was really fortunate. I didn’t suffer from PTSD. The attitude I took was I am so lucky to be here and I thought I had a second chance at life. I really didn’t want to let what happened get the better of me.”

After the Cullen inquiry had finished and endless medicals and examinations completed, Mr Meanen went travelling to Australia and the US to help move on from Piper Alpha. He never went offshore again and later entered the licensed trade.

He finds that events of that night have come to trouble him more in recent times.

“I found what happened at Grenfell really got to me. To see that tower block in flames... well, that reminded me of sitting on that lifeboat looking back at the platform.

“I feel that people, companies, take shortcuts and they don’t really care about people’s lives – and it is the ordinary people who suffer the consequences of that.”

Mr Meanen will attend the memorial service tonight in Aberdeen to remember his colleagues – two who particularly stick in his mind.

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He adds: “On Piper Alpha, we were in four-man cabins. Two of us survived, two of us never. The lads were just in their early to mid-twenties and it’s just sad that their lives were taken away. One of the boys had young children and his children never got to know their father. His daughter has been in touch to say she would like to meet me.

“It’s important for me to keep talking about what happened, to keep it in public, to make sure people know.

“It’s like a responsibility I feel like I have. More so to the folk that didn’t make it.”