Page last updated at 00:42 GMT, Thursday, 3 July 2008 01:42 UK

Widows hope deaths not in vain

The wives of two men who shared a room on Piper Alpha recall the North Sea oil platform tragedy where 167 men lost their lives as the 20th anniversary approaches this weekend.

Ann Gillanders with a photo of husband Ian
Ann Gillanders lost husband Ian in the 1988 disaster

Bob Ballantyne and Ian Gillanders shared a room on Piper Alpha.

After the first explosion hit the North Sea platform in 1988 they made it to a lower level. But once there, they went in opposite directions.

While Mr Ballantyne lowered himself to safety, Mr Gillanders ran towards the other end of the platform - and another explosion. He was never seen again.

Survivor Mr Ballantyne died in 2004, but had been able to tell Ann Gillanders of her husband's last moments.

The 50-year-old from Nairn was one of the men whose body was never recovered.

Mrs Gillanders takes comfort from the details she was able get in the days that followed, of her husband tidying his cabin on Piper Alpha before trying to escape.

She said: "Ian was a very loving family man and at the time he'd been on since the November before the disaster.

The widows of Bob and Ian recount their experiences

"Bob felt terribly bad about what happened, but it's a perfectly natural reaction to feel guilt, and I told him I was just so happy to hear from him."

She explained: "He told me he couldn't believe it when he saw that Ian was tidying his socks and things.

"Ian maybe didn't realise things were as bad as they were, and when things are taken out of your control, you try and keep that control in other ways.

"But he was such a tidy person, and everything he did, whether it was his work or anything else, had to be done to the best of his ability. It sounds ridiculous to put things away in a drawer, but that was Ian as I remember him, having to make sure things were tidy before he left."

'The guilt'

Mrs Gillanders said she preferred not to think about what else happened.

"You have to be able to filter one part of your brain and just shut something off so that the pain won't hurt you," she said.

"It's the same with seeing the pictures on television. Some people couldn't watch it then, and I'm told some still can't watch it now. If it comes on unexpectedly, it gets me too.

Piper Alpha
Only one of the two room mates would escape the disaster

"You work on two levels. You shut out the horror because you need to get the information and find out what's happening."

Mrs Gillanders was able to use the anger at her husband's death to assist others by helping to form the Piper Alpha Families and Survivors Association to provide support and push for improved safety standards in the industry.

They also commissioned the Piper Alpha memorial statue at Aberdeen's Hazlehead Park.

Mrs Gillanders said: "Even now, after so many years, there will be people out there who might want to talk.

"There are so many people in so many ways who are affected.

I know it's 20 years and a lot of people will think 'time passes, forget it', but you cannot forget something like that
Pat Ballantyne
Widow of Bob Ballantyne

"I think the trauma of the whole thing just does not go away."

Mr Gillanders' colleague Mr Ballantyne was one of the most outspoken survivors of the disaster. He died in 2004 after an illness.

His wife Pat told BBC Scotland: "Safety was very important to him.

"He felt very strongly that he had to make sure this sort of thing could not happen again, and that other people would not be going through what he was going through.

"There was the guilt, he had to phone up every single bereaved person he possibly could and apologise for being alive."

She concluded: "I do not think the North Sea is as safe as it should be.

"I know it's 20 years and a lot of people will think 'time passes, forget it', but you cannot forget something like that."

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