Massive explosions hit fuel depot


A fire is continuing to blaze at a fuel depot in Hertfordshire after a series of large explosions sent black smoke drifting up to 40 miles away.

Police say 43 people were injured, two of them seriously, after flames shot hundreds of feet into the sky.

The incident at the Buncefield fuel depot, after 0600 GMT near junction 8 of the M1, is said to be the largest of its kind in peacetime Europe.

The fire, which police believe was an accident, could burn for another day.

About 2000 people living nearby the Hemel Hempstead site have been evacuated, while police have advised others to keep their windows and doors closed because of fumes.

Thick clouds of smoke are spreading to the south-east and south-west of the site.

One person is in Watford General Hospital in intensive care with respiratory problems. Another person is in Hemel Hempstead Hospital being kept under observation.

The other 41 people were treated for minor injuries and discharged.

Earlier rumours a plane was involved in the incident were unfounded, said a police spokesman.

Witnesses said another two explosions followed the first at 0626 GMT and 0627 GMT.

Further explosions
In total, 20 petrol tanks were involved in the fire, each said to hold three million gallons of fuel.

Hertfordshire Police Chief Constable Frank Whiteley said: "There is still a possibility there could be further explosions."

A police investigation into the incident has begun, including investigations by anti-terrorist police.

But Chief Con Whiteley said there was "nothing to suggest anything other than an accident".

A Hertfordshire fire service spokesman said: "This is the largest incidence of its kind in peacetime Europe."

Tanker driver Paul Turner said he ran for his life after the explosion lifted him off his feet.

"I just saw this great big ball of fire come up from behind the building. It was about 50 metres wide," he told the BBC.

"Then there was the loudest explosion I have ever heard in my life. I got up, turned around and ran to my car and sped out of there as fast as I could."

Many houses have been damaged, with some reporting feeling effects from the explosion as far away as Oxfordshire - while it was heard in a number of counties and even France and the Netherlands.

Traffic chaos
Eye witnesses reported buckled front doors, cracked walls and blown-out windows.

The M1 has been closed both ways between junctions 6a and 12 and may remain shut on Monday morning.

The M10 motorway is closed in both directions between junction 1 and junction 7 as well as some arterial roads in Hemel Hempstead.

Motorists have been told not to go "anywhere near the M1 from the M25 upwards".

At Heathrow airport some flights were forced to delay landing because of smoke, but Luton airport was said to be operating as usual.

The Buncefield depot is a major distribution terminal operated by Total and part-owned by Texaco, storing oil, petrol as well as kerosene which supplies airports across the region, including Heathrow and Luton.

The country's fifth largest fuel distribution depot, it is also used by BP, Shell and British Pipeline.

Police said there was no indication the explosion would cause fuel shortages and warned against panic-buying.

"We strongly advise against this as recent events have shown that panic buying alone can cause fuel shortages," said Chief Con Whiteley.

A spokesman for Total said: "We are doing everything we can to support the emergency services and to bring the situation under control."

A spokesman for the Department for Trade and Industry said it was too early to say what the effect would be on fuel supply but oil companies were arranging to get oil from other parts of the south east and across the UK.

"We understand that the oil industry is meeting this afternoon to determine how the supply of petroleum products can be augmented from other distribution terminals," he said.

Shadow trade and industry secretary Alan Duncan, a former oil trader, said the oil industry had a first class safety record.

"This dramatic explosion will need a serious inquiry and a proper study of its implications," he said.

A spokesman for the Health and Safety Executive said it would be investigating the incident.