ON July 6, 1988, 120 miles off the coast of Aberdeen, the Piper Alpha oil platform caught fire. Some 165 men out of a crew of 226 died in the blaze. Two men from the Sandhaven rescue vessel also perished, giving their lives while saving others. A series of errors and accidents catalogued in the ensuing Cullen Inquiry led to what is still the most fatal offshore accident in history and in part bequeathed us the health and safety culture and legislation we have today.

For people who were living in Aberdeen at the end of the 1980s, it’s hard to believe that the Piper Alpha disaster has slipped from the national consciousness. I was seven years old at the time but the images of that burning platform, the sea on fire like some vision of Hell only 120 miles away, is seared into my memory. For days and weeks after the fire took hold, the television seemed to show nothing but swinging, sickening helicopter shots of Red Adair and his crew battling the blaze and hospital bed-bound men in bandages sprouting tubes.

Growing up in Aberdeen, oil rigs and helicopters were ubiquitous, the city booming on all that money. It wasn’t all Texans and cowboy boots, but there was a swagger to the place, a confidence. A job in the oil industry was the destiny for many my age and everyone knew someone already in the business: fathers, uncles, neighbours.

But in 1986, the price of oil dropped dramatically, causing widespread redundancies across the northeast and taking much of the shine off the industry. The Piper Alpha disaster in 1988 marked the end of that first period, the loss of innocence for oil and gas. No-one in the city at that time was unaffected by the tragedy; everyone knew someone connected.

My mother worked as a nurse in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary's intensive therapy unit, and helped treat some of the survivors. She, like everyone involved in the aftermath of that inferno, can easily recall names, faces and injuries. With the publication of my new novel The Waves Burn Bright, which is set during the time of the disaster, many people have told me of a brother or a friend who was there that night, on the platform, on one of the rescue vessels, in a helicopter or on land.

Piper Alpha changed the character of Aberdeen and altered the trajectory of a generation. Many who had assumed their future lay in that industry thought again about what it really meant to go to work over the horizon, out in the bitter North Sea. Until then, none of us knew the sea could catch fire. Nearly 30 years later I found myself returning to those images, to the mood of the city I grew up in, and wondered what impact it had all had on the city and its people.

The first question anyone asks me when I say I’ve written a book about Piper Alpha is: "Why?" Why that subject, and why now? One motivation was surprise at how far from public consciousness the disaster has slipped. In Aberdeen and within the oil and gas industry, memories of the tragedy are still raw. Mention it in any bar in the city and hushed, respectful tones fall like snow over the room. But outside Aberdeen, outside the industry, and certainly in the generation that has grown up since, the most common response was: "I’ve heard of Piper Alpha but I don’t really know anything about it."

Why do some tragedies remain at the forefront of public consciousness and others fade into history? With some it’s obvious. The struggle to keep Hillsborough in the news, to keep pressure on those responsible for conspiracy and cover-ups over the 1989 stadium disaster, was rewarded recently, with official confirmation that the victims had been unlawfully killed. The 96 have never walked alone despite 27 years having passed.

As for the Lockerbie disaster – which happened five months after Piper Alpha – the release of al-Megrahi in 2009, some two decades after Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb, brought the catastrophe back to prominence in the news as, in a different way, did James Robertson’s novel The Professor Of Truth.

Tragedies cannot be compared but while Aberdeen’s unofficial motto is "Lest We Forget", more needs to be done to keep alive the memories of the 167 men who died on July 6, 1988.

Perhaps we need a Piper Alpha Day, not just acknowledged in Aberdeen but around the country. A national day of remembrance, of thanksgiving. Without the oil industry and the sacrifices of those on Piper Alpha and elsewhere, this country would be in a far worse economic and social state than it is today. We owe them so much more than we are currently giving. While it’s apparently all too easy to ignore Aberdeen and the north, distant as it is from Edinburgh and London, and even easier to forget the workers over the horizon, out of sight and out of mind, even Scotland-phobic members of Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s government admitted that without North Sea oil, the lights would have gone out long ago. But economics aside, these were human beings who died in a terrible, avoidable tragedy.

In some cultures they say a person suffers three deaths: first when their body dies. Second when their body has decayed. The third death is when there is no one alive who still remembers them. Frankly, "I’ve heard of Piper Alpha but don’t really know anything about it" just isn’t good enough any more. Let's have a day of remembrance, teach kids about it in schools, deal with it more openly in art. As one survivor said to me: "Anything that keeps their memories alive should be embraced."

It was this, more than anything, that convinced me the time was right for a Piper Alpha novel. The problem was how to approach it.

The Waves Burn Bright tells the story of Carrie Fraser, 16 at the time of Piper Alpha, and her father Marcus, who survives the disaster but suffers post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and self-medicates with alcohol. The oil and gas industry has a reputation for straining all but the strongest marriages, with long absences, stressful conditions and a work hard, play hard approach to time off. Marcus’s marriage to Hannah is already rocky but the disaster shatters it completely, leaving Carrie to care for her volatile father.

The novel covers 33 years in Carrie’s life and explores those fissures in our relationships from which seismic events arise. Some 25 years after Piper Alpha she returns to Aberdeen, a renowned volcanologist, and is forced to confront the past.

A novel that deals with Piper Alpha, PTSD, alcoholism and the treatment of both, as well as volcanology, geothermal energy extraction and which is set in Aberdeen, Loch Morlich, Skye, Durham, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Hawaii required an enormous amount of research. One thing I shied away from however was directly interviewing survivors and the families of those who died. I wanted my survivor, Marcus, to be my creation alone, not an amalgam of real people, and I knew that were I to meet survivors or listen to memories of those who passed away I would be unable to stop those details from slipping into the book, such is the nature of creativity. Furthermore, I am not a reporter, and I couldn’t imagine myself knocking on a stranger’s door and asking them to relive painful memories for my own selfish ends.

I did however speak to experts and read a number of papers on PTSD and its treatment. Once the book was completed I did show it to people connected with Piper Alpha for fact-checking and to remove anything that may have inadvertently offended. Now that the book is being published, more have made contact and have been kind enough to share their stories and thoughts on my novel. The media may move on to the next disaster, to the juiciest scandal, but in Aberdeen and throughout the industry, the emotions are still raw, the pain still visible just below the surface. I believe the imagery of volcanoes that runs through the novel is apt.

But Aberdeen is not a city that lives in the past. While we never forget, we have also moved on. The Aberdeen of 1988 is not the Aberdeen of today, and when Carrie returns 25 years after the disaster she finds the city familiar yet new.

When writers deal with contemporary history rather than stories hundreds of years gone, there is an extra, uncontrollable element we must factor in: events. I began writing about the oil and gas industry during one of its most turbulent periods in years, mirroring the slump in the 1980s. Oil prices have plummeted and 10s of thousands of people in Aberdeen have been made redundant. House prices have collapsed, car lots are stacked with returned company cars and there is a real sense of barely-contained panic in the city. While household energy prices rise, those in the energy industry are struggling to make ends meet.

In my original conception of the novel, Carrie was returning to deliver a fairly bland academic paper on underground mapping at a conference, but as events unfolded, the story shifted to react to them. Aberdeen’s MPs have been working hard to try and win investment for the city to shore up the economy, and the £504 million promised by the Scottish and UK governments is certainly welcome, but it’s a short-term fix. Aberdeen and the industry as a whole need to be investing in the long-term future. Whether oil shortages in the future force a shift to a carbon-free economy or social pressure does to oil what it did to coal, a move away from oil is now a matter of when, not if. Aberdeen, with its expertise and infrastructure, needs to be ready. There are some moves in the right direction, led by the Aberdeen Renewable Energy Group, but all too often the focus is on oil and gas only, rather than "oil and gas for the moment, something else in the future". Without forward planning and investment in renewables in Aberdeen, we could see the focus drift elsewhere, abandoning Aberdeen to the kind of fate other parts of the country saw when the shipyards were closed and the coal mines were boarded up. Cities live imaginatively as well as physically, and by imagining a better future, perhaps we can bring it about.

Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire are very close to my heart, the place I was born and raised, where I lived until I was 24 and the place I miss when I’m in my new home in Japan. It was my intention to make the city a character in my novel, to express the personality and history of the city through one family, through the shockwaves caused by Piper Alpha. But of course one city cannot be reduced to one book. We need more Aberdeen novels, and more Aberdeen writers. They are out there, I’ve met many of them, setting their novels in Edinburgh and Glasgow and London and Paris. The painful contractions in the city today may be the birth pangs of a new Aberdeen and it’s up to the artists as much as the politicians and business community to create it.

Iain Maloney’s third novel The Waves Burn Bright is out now on Freight Books, £9.99