59 hours later, four million liters of foam finally put blaze out


Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Limited
All Rights Reserved

By STEVE BIRD
The Times (United Kingdom) 

The inferno raging in the huge fuel tanks at the Buncefield oil depot was finally extinguished yesterday after a 59-hour battle against the biggest blaze in peacetime Europe.

As scores of evacuated residents returned to homes damaged in Sunday morning's blast and schools in the region prepared to reopen this morning, firefighters continued to cover the remaining isolated fires with foam and douse smouldering gas stores at the depot, near Hemel Hempstead.

Police maintained checkpoints to guard against looting and to ensure that only residents were allowed through.

A total of 20 fuel containers had been set ablaze after a tanker exploded at 6am on Sunday at the Total and Texaco site.

Police investigating the cause of the inferno are focussing on a presence of a cloud of vapour witnessed moments before the explosion. According to reports last night, one driver fears that his action in flicking the emergency cut-out switch on his tanker to kill the engine may have been the trigger that ignited the mist.

Tests on the nearby River Ver and River Red showed that contaminated water had not seeped into the water table and drinking water was given the all-clear. Much of the contaminated fire water stored on the site's reservoir will be held and allowed into the Thames sewerage system at a later date.

With the tank fires out, residents under the plume, which last night was moving southwest, were advised to remain indoors as soot was expected to fall. The authorities in Hertfordshire were last night preparing for the daunting clean up operation. Scores of homes and businesses on a neighbouring industrial estate suffered severe damage in the initial explosion.

Meanwhile, exhausted firefighters gave their first graphic accounts of the battle with the blaze. They described the intense heat as they worked 20ft from the heart of an inferno.

Doug Robinson, 45, a father of three, said: "I have been a fireman for 28 years and I have never seen anything like this. We had to amend the plan for a fire like this and start again."

He and Danny Rickett, 46, the area commander for the Dacorum district, said that they had trained to tackle only one fuel tank fire. But they were confronted with 20 blazing tanks, filled with petrol, kerosene and gas on Sunday.

"For one tank fire it would be a major fire for us. But we had nearly all the tanks alight," Mr Robinson said. "This is something none of us will ever have seen in our careers before."

The men were repeatedly forced to move back from the site as the 60ft containers creaked and groaned before blowing apart, sending up fireballs and gushing more fuel. The explosions threatened to spark a chain reaction, lighting neighbouring tanks filled with highly flammable aviation fuel.

"When tanks have been collapsing there have been huge fireballs, a massive increase in heat and, when you are up close, that is quite hairy," Mr Robinson said. "The concerted effort was immediately diverted to these tanks. We were concerned it would go at one stage. Fifty firefighters ran for cover when one blew. The quicker they ran, the better." To Nick Ashford, 36, the intense heat, charred trees and dead birds made the plant and surrounding industrial estate appear like a scene from the apocalypse. "It was extraordinary up there," the sub-officer at Kings Langley fire station said. "There were dead birds lying on the ground which, I suppose, were blown out of the trees and fried. It is Armageddon: cars have been picked up and thrown great distances, trees have been reduced to black twigs. It's really eerie."

Mr Rickett, who got only five hours' sleep in three days, said that the smoke repeatedly engulfed the crews as the wind direction changed. Despite wearing breathing apparatus and visors, it still managed to irritate their throats and eyes.

Yesterday, the Fire Brigades Union condemned Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service for being "woefully" ill-prepared and called for a public inquiry. But Roy Wilsher, the chief fire officer for Hertfordshire, rejected all claims that he or his staff had been caught out by events. "The work of my firefighters and officers and partners has been absolutely magnificent," he said. "They have worked in extreme conditions and shown true professionalism. Our tactical plan put in place on Sunday has worked."

The majority of residents who had been moved from streets around the oil depot were returning home for the first time last night.

John Lane and his wife Veronica, with their daughter, 11, and son, 4, said that they were relieved to be finally going home. Mr Lane, 50, said: "In the quieter moments you do feel it bubbling up inside. It's not so much anger as frustration and not knowing what is going to happen."

Mark McNally, 36, and his girlfriend, Marie Keane, 34, were still not ready to take their 15-month-old daughter home. Ms McNally said: "We don't want to bring our baby back for days. Her lungs are only just developing, but the fire is still burning and there's still a tank of aviation fuel."

Sue Ashton, 30, said the past two days had been very confusing, particularly as they had been out until 2am on the night before the explosion. "We kept asking the policeman on the barriers if we could come home yet," she said. "Friends and family have been great but the anxiety of not knowing has been really difficult."

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