Huge explosions ripped through one of the UK’s largest fuel depots on Sunday morning, sending a tower of flames hundreds of feet into the sky.
The blasts at the Buncefield oil depot, operated jointly by Total and Texaco near Hemel Hempstead, north of London, caused what is believed to be Britain’s biggest oil fire for a quarter of a century. The fire could continue to burn for days.
The explosions were heard up to 40 miles away and ignited fuel supplies causing a cloud of thick black smoke to spread eastwards over the surrounding area.
Police said there were 43 casualties, with four people seriously hurt.
The blaze will raise questions over the safety of oil depots around the country. Though police said the blasts were believed to be an accident, the incident could also increase fears over the vulnerability of oil depots and refineries to terrorist attack.
The first blast happened at 6.03 am at the fuel terminal in Leverstock Green, Hertfordshire, close to junction 8 of the M1 motorway.
Paul Turner, a tanker driver who had arrived for work at the depot, said the blast lifted him off his feet. “I just saw this great big ball of fire come up from behind the building. It was about 50 metres wide,” he told BBC radio.
“Then there was the loudest explosion I have ever heard in my life. It took me off my feet.”
Frank Whiteley, chief constable of Hertfordshire police, said: “All indications at this stage are that this was an accident. However, clearly we will keep an open mind until we can confirm that for certain.”
He said operations at the scene, involving more than 200 police and firefighters, meant there would be further explosions.
He warned people to beware of the plume of smoke, hanging over the surrounding area. “This cloud, not least because it does contain heavy smoke, is an irritant, and would certainly make people who inhale it potentially cough, potentially irritate the eyes, and potentially feel nauseous.”
Police have discounted earlier rumours that a plane was involved in the incident.
Roy Wilsher, Hertfordshire’s chief fire officer, said: “This is certainly the biggest fire that I have seen. You have to go back as far as Milford Haven to see a fire on this scale.”
Witnesses said two more explosions followed the first at 6.26am and 6.27am.
Total said: “We are doing everything we can to support the emergency services and to bring the situation under control.”
Buncefield is the country’s fifth-largest oil distribution depot, with a reported storage capacity of about 150,000 tonnes. As well as oil and petrol, it also holds large stocks of the aviation fuel kerosene, used to supply airports across the region including Heathrow and Luton.
A high pressure oil pipeline, run by British Pipeline, runs from the Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire to Buncefield site.
The depot, which is also used by BP and Shell, usually operates 24 hours a day, filling 400 tankers each day from 26 storage tanks.
Nick Vandervell, communications director of the UK Petroleum Industry Association, said: “It is quite a significant facility in terms of its scale. The depot is fed by pipeline - Total have their own pipeline which comes down from the Lindsey refinery bringing petrol, diesel and jet fuel...The Buncefield plant is linked to a pipeline which goes from there and takes jet fuel to Heathrow.”
Industry experts were quick to play down fears of a rise in oil prices because of the blaze.
Ray Holloway, of the Petrol Retailers Association, said the oil industry had plans in place to deal with such an emergency, including the use of other depots in south-east England.
He said: “This site is strategically important, but not critically important. There will be no market effect and the oil industry will do what it does and manage this extremely effectively.”
Even so there were signs that some motorists in the areas had already started panic buying after hearing news of the explosions, he said. “It’s not just people in the Hemel area who have been indulging in panic buying. Motorists as far away as Croydon in Surrey have been at it.”
The blasts caused some travel delays. The M1 motorway was shut in both directions from junction 11 at Luton to junction 6a north of Watford. The M10 was also closed between junctions 1 and 7, as well as some arterial roads in hemel Hempstead.
The RAC said: “We and the police are advising people to avoid this whole area.”
Some flights were delayed at Heathrow because one of the air routes into the airport, where aircraft await their turn to land, was closed because of the smoke. However, there was little disruption as the wind was carrying the smoke eastwards while the airport is due south of the blaze.
The police casualty bureau can be contacted on 0800 096 0095.