| A huge column of smoke billows out of the burning oil depot. (Reuters)
London, Dec. 11: Britain’s fifth biggest oil depot near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire blew up at 6 am today, sending plumes of smoke into the surrounding countryside in a manner which recalled the 1984 Bhopal disaster.
“This is what hell would look like,” said an eyewitness after the first massive explosion was quickly followed by two others and flames shot 200 feet into the clear sky.
Such is the nervous state of Britain following the July blasts in London that local residents around the Buncefield depot, which stores petrol, kerosene and aviation spirit for the nearby Heathrow and Luton airports, assumed that a plane had flown into the industrial complex.
Because the blasts occurred early this morning, the depot was relatively deserted which explains why no one was killed. Police said 39 people were injured, two seriously, and added the blasts were being treated as accidents.
Tanker driver Paul Turner had just arrived for work at the depot when the first explosion occurred. “I just saw this great big ball of fire come up from behind the building. It was about 50 metres wide. Then there was the loudest explosion I have ever heard in my life. It took me off my feet.”
Dominic and Sheila Gizzie, a retired couple who live near a cemetery only a quarter of a mile from the blast site, said they thought there may have even been an earthquake. Gizzie said: “We got woken up this morning with a huge explosion. The flames were 100 feet into the air, I have never seen anything so big.” His wife said: “We thought it may have been an earthquake.”
Unlike the Bhopal disaster, however, in which gases containing deadly cyanide compounds poured into neighbouring slums, the black smoke which spread out from the plant appeared to contain hydrocarbons from the burning fuel. However, the very young and old as well as asthma suffers may be affected.
Immediately after the explosions, police closed junctions 6 to 12 of the M1 motorway, the main arterial route to the north. Flights at Heathrow, already affected by early morning fog, were also disrupted.
The blasts, which blew windows of houses for quite a distance around the plant, could be heard for up to 40 miles. Some reports said the sound could be picked up across the channel in France.
The fire is expected to burn for several days but once it is brought under control, fundamental questions will be asked about the wisdom of locating industrial plants in residential areas. There have been other accidents before.
A previous disaster occurred at a chemical plant close to Flixborough (near Scunthorpe), North Lincolnshire, on June 1, 1974. That explosion killed 28 people and seriously injured 36. Of course, none of this compares with Bhopal.
Suggestions that today’s incident was a terrorist attack were played down by the Hertfordshire police chief Constable Frank Whiteley who said: “We cannot be 100 per cent sure of the cause at this stage because we are still interviewing witnesses. But there is nothing to suggest anything other than an accident.”