On the 6th July 1988, a fire ripped through the Piper Alpha oil rig off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, killing 167 men - roughly four-fifths of the crew - in two hours. Fire in the Night, Anthony Wonke's documentary account of the disaster, is initially distinguished by its editorial restraint, allowing information films on oil rig construction to play out almost at length - the better to set this particular tragedy, the worst in rigging history, in its full and proper context. The Alpha was meant as a super-platform, combining and processing the output of two smaller, adjacent rigs; it offered good food (one archive clip picks up on a basket full of Wagon Wheels - back when they were an acceptable size - at the heart of a generous refectory spread) and better-than-average accommodation.
Gradually, though, the testimony of the surviving crewmen clues us in as to the noise and dirt and risk involved aboard the rig on even ordinary days: if not quite the extremes faced by Stellan Skarsgard and colleagues in von Trier's Breaking the Waves, then still, clearly, a haphazard and dangerous business. (Look sharp for the clip of a grapplehook almost decapitating one employee during a storm.) The blaze was caused when the rig's operators Occidental elected to carry out maintenance while continuing production: this was lethal overreach, a fatal instance of multitasking. At 10pm on the night in question, a pump in the process of being upgraded was switched on, encircling the rig in a vast fireball; within an hour, both pipelines had exploded, compounding the error and making the rescue mission doubly fraught.
Faced with the challenge of making what was a complicated logistical failure accessible to the layperson, Wonke has focused on those variables that are in some ways human and graspable: the immediate aftermath of the explosion is presented as a matter of sticking your hand into an inferno in the vain hope of pulling somebody out alive. This wasn't possible for most, and the USP here is the (almost real-time) commentaries of interviewees who, approaching 25 years on, are still reliving this tragedy in their heads - in part because they're still not certain about what it was they saw or did that night, and why it is they lived to tell this tale where others, often standing only a matter of feet away from them, did not. (If you want to know something of what it is to live in the moment, tune in: these guys have been inhabiting a permanent moment for a quarter of a century now, and it's far from an especially healthy place to be.)
Wonke locates their younger selves very specifically, using reconstructions and moving dots on a blueprint of the Alpha, so we can grasp how these men were scattered in the wake of the initial blast, cut off from the lifeboats in some cases, forced to jump 175ft from the helipad into the foaming waters below in others; the fear and pain evident even today in these once-hardened roughnecks' eyes comes to tell its own story. You're reminded of the non-choice faced by those caught in the World Trade Center on September 11: do you stay put and await your rescuers, no matter that they may not be able to get to you, and you may fry in the meantime, or take a deep breath and leap into the unknown - towards, if not certain death in this case, then the scarcely more inviting cold of the North Sea?
The men speak plainly, using unfussy, everyday terms, which proves to be a descriptive boon. The heat was apparently like being "under a grill", such that, while bobbing in the water under the platform, you could feel your own scalp cooking; the noise like that of a blowtorch, turned up a thousandfold. Of course, as you're sitting watching the film, or merely reading this review, a gas main could rupture beneath your feet and blow you, too, towards the next life. While Fire in the Night stands as a foursquare memorial to those who lost their lives on and around Piper Alpha, and a wholly sincere tribute to the courage and tenacity of those who survived it (and its hellish memories), it also comes as another vivid reminder of how much life is mostly a matter of incalculable, unfathomable dumb luck. As a helicopter pilot involved in the rescue mission, helplessly observing another fireball tearing through the already stricken platform, is heard to put it via radio: "There's not a lot we can do".
Fire in the Night is available on DVD through Soda Pictures, and to view online free here until Friday.