December 11, 2005

British fire crews to battle oil depot blaze

By Stephen Hird and Peter Griffiths

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Fire crews in southern England
are to begin fighting one of Europe's biggest peace time blazes
on Monday after a wave of explosions ripped through a fuel

A spectacular plume of smoke turned the sky black for miles
around after blasts caused widespread damage and started a
blaze which sent fireballs shooting into the air early on

Police said it was too early to say what caused the
explosions, which injured 43 people, one seriously, although
they said it appeared to be an accident.

The blasts, reportedly heard up to 100 miles away,
initially raised fears of a possible repeat of the deadly wave
of suicide bombings in London in July.

"We all thought it could be a terrorist attack," builder
Ricky Clarke, who lives near the depot near the town of Hemel
Hempstead, north of London, told the Daily Mail newspaper.
"Everyone was really panicking and just getting in their cars
and going."

A truck driver queuing at the Buncefield depot to fill his
lorry with fuel said he and some colleagues had had a
"miraculous" escape.

"There was just a massive, massive explosion," Terry Hine
told Sky News television. "The force of the blast threw all of
us forward onto the floor."

Chief fire officer, Roy Wilsher, said it was the largest
fire he had ever seen.

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


After containing the fire on Sunday, more than 150
firefighters were ready to start putting it out with a blanket
of foam early on Monday, a police spokeswoman said.

About 2,000 people living near the depot were evacuated,
main roads were closed and some flights into London's Heathrow
airport were delayed.

British newspapers cleared their pages for scores of
pictures of the fire under headlines such as "Vision of
Doomsday," "Cloud of Doom" and "Black Sunday."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott visited the scene and
praised the emergency services' work.

"He was just glad that the number of people injured was
small and that there were no fatalities," a spokesman said.

The depot supplies petrol and fuel oils to a large part of
southeast England, including Luton and Heathrow airports.

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.

Officials said the explosions were unlikely to cause fuel
shortages and urged motorists to avoid 'panic buying' of

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

(Additional reporting by Mike Holden and Mike Peacock)