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Buncefield Explosion and Fire

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The truth may well be suppressed

Our correspondent writes ...

Two months after the explosion at the Total Oil depot in Hemel Hempstead, the principal operating company has still not admitted liability or compensated residents who were affected by the disaster.

Why am I not surprised?

I am not surprised because I worked in the oil industry for many years, part of the time as Safety Manager, and I witnessed the aftermath of several major incidents when my employers went to enormous lengths to cover up the truth.

In the seventies, there was an explosion and fire in the rail sidings of the Total Oil terminal at Slough when a train discharging petrol into the storage tanks went up in flames. I wasn't in safety at that time but I lived just outside Slough and went to the terminal as my company shared Total's facilities at Langley.

What I saw was unbelievable. The heat was so intense that you couldn't get within 500 metres of the blaze and units from many brigades in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire battled furiously throughout the night to prevent the fire reaching the above-ground storage tanks. When the flames were eventually extinguished, the aftermath was reminiscent of a scene from War of the Worlds. What remained of the railcars were welded to the tracks and the tracks themselves bore no resemblance to the parallel rails we are used to. It was almost as if someone had tied them in knots.

When trains move into private sidings at oil terminals, gates are locked behind them to prevent them moving until the cargo is discharged. In this instance, the gates were never shut and the driver reversed the train before the earthed delivery pipes were disconnected. The result was the pipes fractured and the metal earth strip contained within the convoluted hose broke free and caused a spark. And that was it.

To the best of my knowledge, the true facts were never made public. According to my sources, the guard panicked and did a runner. He was never caught so he carried the can for the accident - the scapegoat that companies love to blame when things go wrong.

Some while after that, there was an explosion at the Bramhall terminal in Cheshire. In this instance, a driver was filling his road tanker when a cigarette lighter fell from his pocket and sparked. Since a loading bay is always heavy with fuel vapours, there was spontaneous combustion followed by an intense fire.

Of course, the driver caused the explosion by breaching safety regulations - cigarette lighters were not allowed on tankers. But many drivers smoked at the wheel though I never recall any getting fired.

On another occasion, I investigated a filling station fire in West London during the night. The manager and his wife lived in the flat above the showroom and were lucky to escape with their lives. My investigation showed there had been a break-in and attempted burglary, after which the culprit deliberately set fire to cars on the forecourt and was seen by a witness. Although the results could have been even more disastrous had the manager's family not jumped from the upper floor, the directors of my company would not let the truth come out because it would have 'jeopardised the insurance claim'.

Finally, I was sent up to the Oxspring terminal in Yorkshire to investigate the death of a driver whose tanker had crashed and exploded. At that time, the company were running tank trailers equipped with single axles fitted with single balloon tyres rather than twin tyres. For economic reasons, this was a cost-effective policy but as time passed these tyres caused considerable problems. When one punctured, it went with an enormous bang and the trailer was immensely unstable as there was no fall-back wheel to take the trailer weight. We had several incidents of overturned tankers and the drivers were justifiably worried during this period.

The vehicle involved in the Oxspring incident was equipped with such tyres and the vehicle overturned and rolled completely. The driver did not escape from the cab and little of his body was left after the intense blaze. However, it was enough for the coroner to decide he had suffered a heart attack. But he could not say for certain whether the heart attack caused the accident, or whether the accident caused the heart attack. Most in the know, understanding that these tyres went with alarming suddenness, believed it was likely the heart attack occurred as a result of the exploding tyre and sudden instability of the trailer. This was also the coroner's preferred verdict.

Unfortunately, other circumstances dictated that the quest for truth would be dealt a damaging blow. The company were going for the Sir George Earle trophy awarded annually by RoSPA to the company with the best safety record - one with no fatalities and no blameworthy accidents. They chose to announce that the heart attack caused the accident and duly received their award. And, unless you were there during that year, you wouldn't know how many other blameworthy accidents were adjudged non-blameworthy.

So my advice to the good people of Hemel Hempstead is ... don't hold your breath. Although I am certainly not an expert in terminal fires, I do know there is always a cause and it is usually a breach of statutory regulations. When an explosion is felt fifty miles away you can be sure it was not fuelled from a minor leak. Intelligent logic suggests there must have been an enormous build-up of potentially explosive vapours and this must have happened over a reasonably long time period.

But, in practice, whenever something like this happens, the companies involved immediately wheel out their trained liars (often known as Public Relations Managers or Official Company Spokespersons). As they want to keep their highly-paid jobs, they effuse streams of bullshit which any sensible person will immediately identify as bovine excrement.

Mark my words, honesty will figure well down the list of possible explanations, if at all, and the search for a plausible cover-up, or a scapegoat, will be perpetuated for a long, long time.

Editorial Comment:

Readers should not interpret any false implication that oil companies are the only ones to employ professional liars. Most large companies have them. It is, after all, a policy endorsed by the British Government and it would be almost impossible to find one of them that was not a liar.

Visitors' Comments

TK, Birmingham writes:

The main contributing factor in the Buncefield incident is the reliance on technology to operate such terminals. Terminals are either undermanned or unmanned. In this instance a storage tank was being filled without anyone being aware of the level of liquid in the tank. This was blamed on a faulty level switch. Well, it is still possible to dip storage tanks. It is completely against any operating procedure to carry on filling a tank without being able to ascertain the contents. There is always the stop button.

Total certainly put Buncefield on the map, as they did with Bantry Bay in 1979 with a loss of sixty-seven lives.

"Many men stumble across the truth ... but most manage to pick themselves up and continue as if nothing had happened."

Winston S Churchill

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