Major explosions at UK oil depot

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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Location of Hemel Hempstead within the UK
A shot of the fire taken near the depot

A series of large explosions have occurred close to Hemel Hempstead Hertfordshire, UK. The source of the explosions has been confirmed as the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal (HOSL), Hemel Hempstead, known locally as the Buncefield complex. Up to 150 fire fighters are reported to be at the scene with 10 fire appliances and 1 specialist foamer.

The first 'blast' was heard near Hemel Hempstead on Sunday 11 Dec at 6 am. Further smaller explosions followed at 6:24am , 6:26am, 6:30am. BBC News 24 reported an additional, fourth large explosion. Hertfordshire Police Constabulary are currently treating the explosion as an accident.

Reports say the explosion, which registered 2.4 on the Richter scale, was heard as far away as Oxford, and Whitehall, Central London which is 60km (38 miles) away. Eyewitness statements report that the explosion was heard from at least 160km (100 miles) away and as far away as France and The Netherlands. Pilots reported noticing the blast from the North Sea and the West Country area of the UK. The M1 motorway which runs close by has been closed in both directions near the blast which is causing travel chaos as other roads become congested.

Malcom Stewart, a BBC News24 eyewitness who is a tanker driver for the site has reported that the site supplies several oil companies and is a joint operation between Total UK and Texaco, it is also used by BP, Shell and the British Pipeline association. The complex is not a refinery but a storage facility for refined petroleum awaiting distribution to airports and filling stations. The eyewitness reports that the depot has approximately 20 tanks which can hold about 3 million gallons (11 million litres or 70,000 barrels) each. Another News24 eyewitness has just reported that he has seen at least 5 of these tanks on fire.

Satellite image of Hemel Hempstead fuel explosion showing black smoke from the explosion near London

The depot operates on a 24 hour basis and is split into 2 parts - aviation fuel and domestic fuel. A number of eyewitnesses have reported on UK news that the aviation fuel side appears to be the part of the site that has been affected.

Local authorities were not immediately available for comment but there have been reports of casualties.

Some reports on live television state that, "Several other neighbours said they did see a plane go into the depot." BBC News 24 were also discussing the idea a possible plane crash as the cause of the explosions. Hertfordshire police have now gone on the record to say that there is no plane involved (BBC News24).

The police have issued a contact number 0800 096 0095 and asked that people do not call the emergency services in Hertfordshire directly unless it is an emergency.

Buncefield Fire, taken from Dunsmore, Bucks - about 20miles away.

In addition to being an oil storage depot, it is a major hub on the UK oil pipeline network with pipelines to Killingholme Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR), Humberside (10 inch), Merseyside (10 and 12 inch), Coryton on the Thames Estuary (14 inch) and Heathrow (6 and 8 inch) and Gatwick airports radiating from it.

The disaster is believed to be the worst explosion at a petrochemical plant in the UK since the Flixborough disaster of 1974. Hertfordshire's Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher said: "This is possibly the largest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe."

A firefighting press officer said that they are stock piling foam from neighboring regions for a prolonged attach which they hope will stop the spread of the fire, however, the inferno itself will have to burn out which could take between 24 hours and a few days.

Despite the authorities saying that there is no need to panic buy petrol, filling stations have had above average queues since this morning and some small garages have ran out.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has visited the scene.

Smoke Viewed from St Albans

Damage reports

  • Houses half a mile away have had windows smashed and garage doors blown in.
  • BBC News24 (UK) have reported that a nearby building has been destroyed, it is possible that this may be a building belonging to Geest Limited.
  • BBC News24 eyewitnesses reported that the entire depot complex appears to be on fire with buildings on the nearby industrial estate on fire.
  • Police said at a news conference that 36 people were injured, four of them seriously. Police later revised the numbers to 43 injured, two seriously.
  • A fire service spokesman said that the explosions caused a "fairly major fire at a factory" on the adjoining industrial estate.

Cause

Police are discounting the reports of a small plane being heard nearby just before the explosion.

An oil industry specialist reported on BBC News that a vapour leak could have built up to explosive concentrations because of the ground frost in the area keeping vapour concentration at ground level. This would have resulted in a fuel-air explosion[1]. Eyewitnesses report seeing vapour and smelling petrol just before the explosion, leading experts to speculate that there may have been a fuel spillage or vapour leak. A BBC News 24 interview with a petrol tanker driver, who was about to load his tanker at 6am, reported a cloud of mist rolling in from the tank farm area behind the loading bay. All electric lights were turned off and they were ordered to leave the site on foot. As he was doing so a blast blew him off his feet. In another interview a security guard in a nearby office building reported an unusual smell of petrol inside his building before the explosion.

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UK Emergency contact number 0800 096 0095

People calling from outside of the UK should call +44 20 7158 0125

Sources

Links to Pictures

External links

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