December 11, 2005

Massive blast hits UK fuel depot

By Stephen Hird and Michael Holden

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Explosions tore through a fuel
depot north of London on Sunday, spewing out a huge tower of
smoke and flame in what officials said could be the biggest
incident of its kind in peacetime Europe.

Police said only one person was seriously injured and
believed it was almost certainly an accident.

"There is nothing that indicates anything other than an
accident," Hertfordshire Chief Constable Frank Whiteley told a
news conference after Britons, still on edge from July bomb
attacks in London, awoke to fresh images of destruction.

Eyewitnesses described a series of massive explosions at
the Buncefield oil depot just after 0600 GMT, shooting flames
and billowing smoke hundreds of feet into the air, smashing the
windows of nearby homes and causing widespread damage.

A Reuters witness said the blast was heard 40 km (25 miles)
away in northwest London.

The county's chief fire officer, Roy Wilsher, said it was
the largest fire he had ever seen and would burn for at least
another 24 hours.

"We have been informed by experts that this is possibly the
largest incident of this kind in peacetime Europe," he said.

Hours later, the sky was still blackened by a wall of smoke
which had drifted miles across southern England and was big
enough to be visible on space satellite images.

Some homes in the area were evacuated.

Police said there were 43 casualties but only one person
appeared to have suffered serious injuries. "At the moment it
looks as if we got off a lot more lightly than you would expect
with an explosion of this size," Whiteley said.


Officials said the explosions were unlikely to cause fuel
shortages and urged motorists to avoid 'panic buying' of
petrol. But witnesses reported queues of drivers at petrol
stations, waiting to fill up their cars.

The Buncefield depot supplies petrol and fuel oils to a
large part of southeast England, including Luton and Heathrow
airports. Oil is brought to the depot, near the town of Hemel
Hempstead, by underground pipeline from tankers unloading on
the east coast.

A government spokesman said that when full, the depot holds
five percent of Britain's oil supply, but they could not say
how much it was holding before the blast.

He said oil industry chiefs were meeting to work out how to
guarantee supplies from other distribution terminals.

"There is nothing to suggest there will be a fuel shortage
as a result of this," Whiteley said.

The depot, the fifth largest in Britain, is jointly run by
oil companies Total and Texaco.

Police said about half the plant had been destroyed. They
closed the nearby M1 motorway in both directions, causing
traffic chaos.

Britain has been on edge since four suicide bombers blew
themselves up on underground trains and a bus in London in
July, killing 52 commuters.

Car-loving Britons have also been concerned about petrol
supplies since hauliers blockaded refineries in a fuel tax
protest five years ago and brought Britain to a virtual halt.

People living in the Hemel Hempstead area were shaken by
what they said was a bone-jarring blast.

Mike Carlish, who lives less than 4 km (3 miles) from the
Buncefield depot, said he had been woken by a "blinding white
flash" and a blast so powerful it knocked plaster off the
ceiling in his house.