Buncefield explosion: 'I thought a plane landed on us'

By Katy Lewis
BBC News

Media caption,
The explosion was the UK's largest since World War Two

On the morning of 11 December 2005, the UK experienced its largest explosion since World War Two. The huge blast at the Buncefield fuel depot in Hemel Hempstead was heard as far away as the Netherlands and shrouded much of south-east England in smoke. Ten years on, what has been the lasting impact?

It was just after 06:00 GMT on Sunday when David Mitchell was awoken by an "unbelievable" explosion that caused his home to start falling down around him.

His house was "shaking and shuddering" so much he thought an aeroplane had landed on it.

His five-year-old daughter somehow managed to sleep through the deafening noise but woke up covered in rubble in a home where the walls had collapsed and the roof had caved in.

Image source, Ford Shackcloth
Image caption,
Houses in the area were wrecked by the blast

Mr Mitchell said his family ran outside and seeing a "huge, huge, fireball", realised the oil depot, some 400m away, had exploded.

At the time, the Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal - co-owned by Total and Texaco - handled more than two million metric tonnes of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel each year and was the fifth largest oil products storage depot in the UK.

Image caption,
Ford Shackcloth's and David Mitchell's homes were some of the closest to the terminal
Image source, Tom Margesson
Image caption,
The rapid formation of a rich fuel and air vapour caused an explosion equivalent to 30 tonnes of TNT
Image source, NASA
Image caption,
At one point black smoke covered much of south-eastern England as this satellite image from 13:36 GMT shows

With smaller explosions still happening, the first thought of those living nearby was to leave. They fled from thick black smoke to the sanctuary of hotels outside the immediate blast zone.

The area was taped off as a suspected crime scene - although ultimately the explosion was revealed to be down to human error - and unable to return by road, Mr Mitchell, together with neighbour Ford Shackcloth, trudged across surrounding fields to gather a few essentials from their homes.

Grabbing credit cards and pet cats, at this stage they couldn't have realised the fight for compensation would take years as oil companies battled lawyers over "tiny details".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
It took 53m litres of water and nearly 800,000 litres of foam to extinguish the fire
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Hemel Hempstead site was devastated

The damage to Mr Mitchell's house took about six months to repair at a cost of about £200,000 but the psychological impact was even more significant, with his family developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"The thing that really got to me was how close to death my children came... that was something that was very, very difficult to come to terms with," he said.

"The whole event did definitely change my life... we all suffered from PTSD and even years later we were still having the occasional flashbacks.

"I had a lot of treatment, I'm OK now I'm glad to say, but the memory of it is not something I particularly like to recall."

Image source, Ford Shackcloth
Image caption,
The ceiling fell on to a bed in Ford Shackcloth's house - "we couldn't change insurers for five years", he said
Image source, Ford Shackcloth
Image caption,
The pressure wave from the explosion momentarily lifted the roof off Ford Shackcloth's house
Image caption,
Mr Shackcloth's house was rebuilt - he says he now has "hundreds of insurance policies that I never had before – just in case"

Mr Shackcloth, who owns a music shop in St Albans, said both his wife and his daughter, then aged nine, were also treated for PTSD.

The pressure wave from the explosion momentarily lifted the roof off his house. When the roof came back down, it popped out the windows and the front door. Ceilings came down and the walls were damaged.

The "chaos" of rebuilding took about a year, although it took five years to be compensated by the oil company.

The Buncefield explosion

Unleaded motor fuel was being pumped into storage tank 912 in the north-west corner of the site

  • Staff did not realise capacity had been reached
  • Safeguards failed - automatic shutdown did not happen and fuel continued to be pumped in
  • By 05:20 GMT the tank was overflowing through roof vents
  • A fuel and air vapour cloud formed causing an explosion equivalent to 30 tonnes of TNT, measuring 2.4 on the Richter scale
  • Further explosions followed and fire engulfed 20 large storage tanks
  • The blaze took five days to put out

Civil litigation lawyer Des Collins got involved early in 2006 and dealt with 200-300 claims - but even he could not have predicted some would only be settled seven years later.

"It's always a question of who accepts responsibility," he said, "but here no-one did until those affected joined forces and took the case to trial."

Image source, Jim Lewis
Image caption,
The smoke cloud blocked the sun for miles around, as this shot from St Albans shows
Image source, Peter Hardingham
Image caption,
The M1 was closed as it was enveloped in thick smoke

Before a civil trial that was set to begin in October 2008, the position taken by Total and Texaco - the two oil companies involved - was that much of the damage caused was "not foreseeable" and they only accepted responsibility for damage in a theoretical radius of 281m - but a lot of those affected fell outside of this.

However, shortly before the trial they admitted liability for all the damage.

Individual claims then had to be dealt with and that was when "we got down to arguing over tiny little issues", Mr Collins said.

"They wanted receipts and then said maybe [the claimant] should have gone to Tesco rather than Marks & Spencer.

"[If a claimant] bought 28 pairs of knickers and only had a receipt for 25, we were writing four or five letters over three pairs of knickers and had to take witness statements. It was bizarre."

Buncefield blaze


litres of petrol leaked


days to extinguish blaze

  • 53m litres of water

  • 180,000 litres of foam

  • 180 firefighters

Residents' recovery was also halted as "the longer you are involved with the legal process the longer the recovery process takes", Mr Collins said.

He said that each time one of his clients received a letter about the small details, such as the hotels they went to or their shopping bills at the time, it forced them to relive what had happened to them.

Image source, Ford Shackcloth
Image caption,
The blaze took five days to extinguish

The fuel companies' response

Total said all the parties had made "the best possible effort to ensure compensation was made in the best possible timeframe".

A spokeswoman said: "Despite the complexity of the situation and the various parties involved, actions were taken promptly to settle as many claims as possible, with 95% of claims being settled by 2009."

The company said it recognised the "huge impact" the explosion had had on the community and it had worked to ensure "full compliance" with the subsequent recommendations.

"Wide-ranging changes related to process safety at all levels have been fully implemented," a spokeswoman said.

Texaco, now owned by Valero, was asked to comment about residents' compensation but did not address this point in its response.

Mr Shackcloth - who eventually accepted a third compensation offer - said the experience with lawyers left a "really sour taste in the mouth".

"I remember having to detail lots of different journeys given that the roads around Buncefield were closed... and little things like buying people flowers for putting us up."

But he said questions about the losses his business suffered, the decreased value of his house and what "loss of amenity" there was - because suddenly there were no hedges, trees and birds left - were difficult to quantify.

"From their point of view the longer they strung it out, the more they thought we would cave in so the cheaper it would be for them," he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Fire engulfed 20 large storage tanks

All Mr Collins' clients were eventually reimbursed but the spectre of it happening again still hangs over them.

"I keep a lid on it these days, I could get into a bit of a state about things if I allow too many memories to come surfacing back up again," David Mitchell said.

"But it doesn't take much to start the imagination going, thinking about what would happen if it exploded a second time."

Image source, Ford Shackcloth
Image caption,
Some 92 businesses at the nearby Maylands Industrial Estate, employing 9,500 staff, were directly or severely affected
Image source, Total UK
Image caption,
A new aviation fuel storage and distribution terminal is currently under construction on the Buncefield site

Citizen journalists

Nathan Williams is from the BBC's User Generated Content hub, which deals with video, photographs, emails and texts from the public on breaking stories. He was working on the day of the explosion.

"Footage was sent to us from some rather over-enthusiastic contributors," he said.

"Unlike the 7/7 bombings, there were thousands of eyewitnesses to the huge Buncefield fire. By lunchtime we'd had 5,000 images - it was a massive response."

Mark Frankel, social media editor for BBC News added: "Buncefield helped shape our thinking around safety. To what extent should we be encouraging members of the public to send us footage in an unfolding and potentially dangerous situation? We needed to adapt our 'calls to action' to discourage risk and underline our duty of care."

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