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Occidental Reports Sabotage Attempt on Piper Alpha Rig

January 19, 1989

ABERDEEN, Scotland (AP) _ Occidental Petroleum Corp. said Thursday someone apparently tried to sabotage the Piper Alpha oil rig 10 months before an explosion and fire on the rig killed 167 men.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based company told a panel investigating the disaster that a small number of ball bearings were found in a gas compressor that had been temporarily shut down. The spokeswoman, Fiona McGhie, said the bearings were removed without incident in September 1987.

″I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess on the consequences (if the ball bearings had not been found) other than there could have been a serious incident,″ Ms. McGhie said on the first day of the inquiry into the July 6, 1988 rig fire.

The tiny metal balls were found in the same area of the explosions that caused the fire, but ″there’s no indication that ball bearings were the cause of the disaster,″ she said.

The Department of Energy already has said in a preliminary technical report the disaster was not caused by sabotage but by a buildup of gas following a leak in the gas compression module.

The oil platform in the North Atlantic was rocked by a series of explosions and incinerated by gas-fed fires. It was the world’s worst oil rig accident.

Sixty-two men survived and the bodies of 136 were recovered. The 31 missing victims are believed caught in tons of debris in water 120 miles off the Scottish coast.

Outside the inquiry center, several protesting relatives held up a banner urging the government to ″Bring the Men Up Now 3/8″

″I will demonstrate until they clear the sea of Piper Alpha,″ said Gavin Cleland, 60, whose 33-year-old son, Robert, was killed.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s administration ordered the inquiry to establish the cause of the disaster and recommend ways of preventing a recurrence. Lord Douglas Cullen is conducting the inquiry with three expert assessors.

Occidental Petroleum said platform managers investigated the apparent sabotage incident but did not find a culprit. The government was not informed until after the July disaster, and details of the incident will be given to the inquiry, it said.

The sabotage had been reported Wednesday night by a survivor, John Wood.

″We all wondered if there was going to be a police inquiry into it, but nothing more was ever said,″ Wood told Independent Television News. ″So it’s still a mystery to this day. It did worry me at the time. I was living and working on this platform and someone was trying to wreck it with me on it.″

Occidental Petroleum plans to topple the 250-foot-high stump of the shattered platform with explosives next month. It said the wrecked platform endangers shipping, but relatives of missing men oppose the destruction.

Margo Gordon, whose husband, James, is missing, said: ″We have got to stop Occidental blowing up or toppling that rig.

″I could understand and accept better if there were just one or two bodies still missing. But 31 is a lot of men, too many to leave it be and allow the families to be written off.″

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