Thursday, February 2, 2012

Book review: "Death and Oil" by Brad Matsen

"Death and Oil" is a crisply written account of the deadliest oil rig disaster of all time. Author Brad Matsen lays out, in careful detail, the events that destroyed the Piper Alpha oil platform off the coast of Scotland in 1988.

While it is ultimately a rather grim story 162 men died there are some bright spots in the stories of those men who managed to survive. Matsen makes it clear that those who survived made extra efforts to get off the rig, while those who sat and waited for rescue died.

Matsen shows a knack for including just the right details to bring the story alive. For example, he describes the aftermath of an explosion in Piper Alpha's main control room with these clear images:

"Clark had hit the wall headfirst. He was covered with blood from cuts on his face but rose to his knees through a waist-high haze of putrid smoke that filled the room. The control panels were a mess of broken glass and sparking electrical wires. Telephones and radio mikes swung on their cords. Clark looked down through the smoke and saw Bollands writhing on the floor, but the screech of metal-to-metal torment made saying anything to him impossible."

I also liked the sections on the development of offshore drilling, the history of Occidental oil and the background of Armand Hammer, Occidental's brash leader. The book has a good index - if you get confused about any of the characters or other elements, you can quickly check to find earlier references.

My one complaint about "Death and Oil" is that it is often hard to follow the workers' movements around the various tiers of the rig. The book does have one drawing showing the general layout of Piper Alpha, but one or two more detailed illustrations would have helped the reader understand references to things like the "production deck," "D Module," and the "sixty-eight" level.

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