Explosions & Fire Rock Oil Terminal

Steve Dudeney reports on a massive fire and explosion at Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal, the fifth-largest oil storage terminal in the UK.


Most people in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, England, expected that Dec. 11, 2005, was going to be a cold and clear late-autumn Sunday like any other. Families planned to put up their Christmas decorations, go into town to join the crowds in the inevitable Christmas shopping rush or just have an...


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Most people in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, England, expected that Dec. 11, 2005, was going to be a cold and clear late-autumn Sunday like any other. Families planned to put up their Christmas decorations, go into town to join the crowds in the inevitable Christmas shopping rush or just have an easy day at home.

That was all about to change at the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal. Known as the Buncefield terminal, it is the fifth-largest oil storage terminal in the UK, holding up to 60 million gallons of oil, 5% of the UK’s capacity. It is a major hub on the UK fuel pipeline network and a major supplier of aviation fuel to Heathrow and Luton airports. The site is owned by Total UK Ltd. and supplies fuel to most of the gasoline stations in southeast England.

Just before 6:03 A.M., a skeleton staff was working at the site, as most of the operation is automated, and a few tanker drivers were on the site having or waiting to have their tankers filled before delivery. It has been reported that a large vapor cloud was seen approaching the loading area of the site. Those on the site were ordered to evacuate and as they did a massive explosion rocked the site.

Buildings in the immediate vicinity and in the adjacent industrial parks were blown apart. A massive fire started in the storage tank area known as HOSL West, behind the loading area, and many residents in the immediate area were literally blown from their beds by the force of the explosion. Houses in the surrounding square miles were moderately damaged with doors and windows being blown out. Those farther away suffered minor damage.

It is believed that the force of this explosion was the greatest in Europe since World War II. Due to a temperature inversion, where the air in the upper atmosphere is warmer than that on the ground, the explosion and subsequent smoke plume reached a certain height, then the waves were forced back down and out. This meant that many people clearly heard the explosion up to 50 miles away. In fact, it is claimed that people a couple of hundred miles away in Belgium and the Netherlands also heard it. (This theory has been investigated and, although very rare, the conditions were right for the explosion to be heard that far away). Amazingly, no one was killed and a relatively few people were injured. There were 43 recorded injuries and only two of them were serious.

Within seconds, multiple calls were being received by Hertfordshire Fire Control Officers (dispatch), who at the time only had four people on duty. Local apparatus were dispatched to the scene, but it was already evident from the explosion that a major incident was underway.

The initial fire spread throughout the western part of the site; tanks holding gasoline, aviation fuel and oil were soon involved. Two more explosions rocked the site at 6:28 as additional tanks became involved.

The Hertfordshire Fire Brigade is a county fire department just north of London. With 32 stations, some with full-time staffing and some with part-time crews, and even with every single resource at their disposal at that moment, it was evident to chief officers that the incident was going to have to be tackled in terms of days instead of hours with the biggest collaboration of UK fire service resources pooled together since the war.

Due to the temperature inversion, the giant smoke plume hit 9, 000 feet and then began to fan out to the south. Before long, and again for the first time since the Blitz, London’s winter sun was blotted out by smoke. The smoke cloud was so vast it appeared as a large black smudge covering a large part of southern England on satellite images taken from space.

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