December 12, 2005

UK fire crews resume fighting blaze

By Dylan Martinez

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD (Reuters) - Fire crews resumed attempts on
Monday to put out one of Europe's biggest industrial blazes, an
inferno at a fuel depot north of London.

The firefighters sprayed foam combined with 32,000 litres
of water per minute to tackle the giant fire, which broke out
shortly before dawn on Sunday as a wave of explosions ripped
through the depot at Hemel Hempstead, injuring 43 people.

Police said the blasts, which blew out windows and doors
from nearby houses, appeared to be an accident.

Firefighters said they had extinguished 12 of the 20
storage tanks ablaze at the depot before halting their work
over concerns one tank may contain a highly volatile fuel which
could set off further explosions.

Crews resumed their work after aerial pictures showed which
parts of the site were safe to enter. The fuel in the suspect
tank was later identified as a type of aviation fuel called


"Fire crews have now resumed cooling and controlling on
site," a fire brigade spokeswoman said. "This is likely to
continue overnight."

Police were preparing to reopen England's nearby main
north-south motorway, the M1, which was closed because of fears
of more blasts.

The area immediately around the Buncefield depot was a
charred wasteland of burned out cars, shattered trees and
scorched grass as a result of the blasts.

A huge plume of thick, black smoke rose higher than 10,000
feet as it drifted southwest.

But contrary to initial fears, there was no indication it
was either highly toxic or coming back down to earth.

"At the moment it appears to be mostly particulates
(soot)," said Michael Clarke of the independent Health
Protection Agency. "We have no reports so far of elevated
levels at ground level," he told Reuters.


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

Firefighters spent Sunday night discussing with
environmental authorities how to tackle the blaze with
fire-quenching foam without polluting local water supplies.

"This is the largest fire of this kind we in the UK or
Europe have dealt with," chief fire officer Wilsher said. "We
are in uncharted territory."

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

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
5 percent of Britain's oil supply, but 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 petrol.

The depot, the fifth largest in Britain, is jointly run by
oil companies Total and Texaco. There was no initial estimate
of the cost of the blaze.

Britain's worst oil fire disaster was the 1988 blaze aboard
the North Sea Piper Alpha rig in which 167 workers died.

(Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths)