Fuel depot near London explodes, injuring dozens; police call it accident
Monday, December 12, 2005
HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England -- Explosions ripped through a major fuel depot north of London on Sunday, injuring dozens of people, blowing doors off nearby homes and sending fireballs and massive clouds of black smoke into the sky.
Police said the blasts appeared to be accidental, though they occurred just four days after an al-Qaida videotape appeared on the Internet calling for attacks on facilities carrying oil "stolen" from Muslims in the Middle East.
The powerful explosions, felt throughout a large swath of southeast England, also rattled nerves in a country still jittery after July's terrorist attack on London's subway and bus system killed 52 people and four suicide bombers.
Hertfordshire Chief Constable Frank Whiteley said there was "nothing to suggest anything other than an accident."
Residents said shock waves destroyed indoor light bulbs and cracked walls and ceilings.
"It was like a sonic boom," said Danny Deacon, 25, who evacuated his wife and two young children on police orders.
"Around 6 a.m., as we were sleeping, there was a mighty explosion -- a thunderclap that woke me up," said Neil Spencer, 42, who lives less than a mile from the Buncefield terminal. "It was fireball after fireball -- truly amazing."
Most of the 43 people injured were treated at nearby hospitals and released after suffering cuts and bruises from shattering windows in Hertfordshire county, about 25 miles north of London. But at least two men were hospitalized, including a plant worker in serious condition, said Howard Bortkett-Jones, medical director of the two local hospitals.
Noxious fumes from the fire, which left some people coughing, also affected the large number of police who sealed off the area and evacuated nearly 300 people to a bowling alley being used as a temporary shelter. About 25 policemen complained of problems such as chest tightness and shortness of breath, Bortkett-Jones said.
There were several blasts at Buncefield terminal, which stores 4 million gallons of gasoline, diesel, kerosene and aviation fuel, and officials warned that more could occur since it will take days to extinguish the inferno.
The Environment Agency said any leaking kerosene, oil or gasoline could damage nearby rivers or streams.
On Wednesday, a videotape by al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri was shown on the Internet calling for attacks against Gulf oil facilities. Portions of the video were released Sept. 19 and shown on Al-Jazeera television.
"I call on the holy warriors to concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims, most of the revenues of which go to the enemies of Islam," said the Egyptian al-Zawahri.
"The enemies of Islam are exploiting such vital resources with incomparable greed, and we have to stop that theft with all we can and save this fortune for the nation of Islam."
The cause of Sunday's disaster was not immediately known, said Total SA, the French oil company that operates Buncefield in a joint venture with Texaco. The British subsidiary, Total UK, said in a statement it was in contact with police and security forces.
Buncefield is the fifth-largest of some 50 major oil storage facilities in Britain. The Total/Texaco reserves there account for about 5 percent of the country's oil supply.
Total said 400 tankers a day were loaded at the site.
BP also has a storage facility at the site, which was not damaged in the blast.
Firefighters planned to use foam to stop the fire spreading across the depot and adjacent industrial park. The 20 blazing tanks were being allowed to burn themselves out, and about 100 firefighters and 100 police officers -- some wearing face masks -- stood watch at the site.
"The fire is likely to continue for the next 24 hours or so," Whiteley said, adding that police were treating the incident as an accident.
The dense pall of smoke rose as high as 10,000 feet over Hemel Hempstead -- a plume so vast it appeared in satellite images.
Smoke also drifted at high elevations over London, said Eddy Carroll, a forecaster at Britain's national weather forecasting office.
A 15-mile stretch of the main north-south M1 highway was closed after the blast, causing severe traffic delays before it reopened Sunday night. Smaller roads close to the depot also were closed.
Nearby Luton Airport remained open, and flights were operating normally.
The blasts were so strong they were felt throughout a large part of southeast England.
Britain's deadliest oil-related disaster was the July 6, 1988, explosion and fire on the North Sea oil platform Piper Alpha, off the Scottish coast, that killed 167 workers.
In 1994, a blast and fire at an oil refinery in Milford Haven, Wales, injured 26 workers and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Texaco and Gulf were fined for violating health and safety regulations.