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27 November 2014

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    A deserted M1 covered in smoke.
    A deserted M1 covered in smoke.

    Buncefield Depot: Eyewitness reports

    A huge explosion at the Buncefield oil distribution depot in Hemel Hempstead has rocked Hertfordshire. Eyewitnesses tell us what they saw.

    People across Herts, Beds and Bucks were awoken early on Sunday morning by an explosion, later described by Hertfordshire's Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher as "the largest incident of its kind in peace time Europe".

    The Fire Brigade and other emergency services were called to attend Buncefield Oil Depot in Hemel Hempstead following reports of a huge explosion just after 6.00am.

    The depot, situated near to Junction 8 of the M1 is one of the largest fuel supplying facilities in the country and maintains fuel deliveries to Luton, Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

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

    The skies dark with thick smoke.
    The skies dark with thick smoke.

    The noise of the explosion is being reported to have been heard as far away as the Netherlands.

    Eyewitnesses have been recounting their experiences. Nick from Hemel Hempstead described how his father was injured:

    "He has glass all over his face, he was sleeping and the window shattered on top of him and he has cuts all over his face and glass in his eyes" he said.

    "Cars have been blown in and windows have been smashed, our front door has been knocked completely over and all the back windows have shattered, there is glass everywhere."

    Carol from Flamstead was woken by the first explosion:

    "I woke up to an enormous bang, the whole house shook. We live in Flamstead which is a few miles away from Hemel but looking out from my bedroom window it looks straight across the hill to Hemel" she recalled.

    "I immediately got up when I felt the house shake because I didn't know what it was, I looked out of the window and I saw a huge fireball coming up in to the sky in the direction of Hemel."

    "Then the whole sky was orange and lit up and then you could see the flames rising from that direction. This was around 6.00am and then there were a couple of smaller explosions."

    Kathryn from St Albans was also disturbed:

    "There was a massive bang and we looked out the window and we could just see cars with their alarms going off but in the distance there was a massive plume of smoke reaching up about 40 or 50 feet billowing and lots of red and orange sparks, it was really, really frightening" she said.

    Kelly Roberts, from Hemel Hempsted lives near to the Buncefield site:

    "We're in a third floor flat and the flames are twice as big and the sky was absolutely illuminated orange" she said.

    "It  took me off my feet. I'm not quite sure if my knees buckled or whether the blast took me off my feet, I was just in shock at that point."
    Tanker driver, Paul Turner, who had just arrived at the depot.

    "Then we got a phone call to say that my sister-in-law's roof had caved in, I've come round there and out of the window is just a scene you could never imagine.

    "It's like watching a volcano, there are fireballs, smoke and it is just unbelievable."

    Claire Lay, lives on a farm next to the oil depot, she woke up to the blast:

    "There was one bang which woke me up and by the time the second bang went off which was almost immediately after, we were at our window" she explained.

    "It was just huge -  within seconds there were hundreds of feet of blazing fire and the flats next door to us have been structurally damaged, the whole sides of them have been taken off." 

    BBC Journalist, Nick Holland, said that he spoke to two oil tanker drivers who had been inside the Buncefield Fuel depot:

    "They said to me that when you're an oil tanker driver your keys and your mobile phone are taken off you when you enter the refinery, as they're filling your tank up with delivery to the petrol stations" he revealed.

    "They said that when the explosion went off there was no way of driving out of the refinery itself, they ran for their lives and they basically ran as far as they could and they were eventually given a lift and driven away from the burning refinery itself."

    James Matthews was staying with his girlfriend in Hemel Hempstead when the explosions took place:

    "Initially I thought that someone was trying to break in to my house, my girlfriend thought we'd had an earthquake" he said.

    People look on as the smoke billows.
    People look on as the smoke billows.

    "We went to the front room and looked out the window and the sky was flashing orange and yellow and there was literally a mushroom of smoke that just suddenly shot up in to the air.

    "What we then did was continue to look at the actual mushroom and saw the flames that actually came up. Both of us were quite shocked, we thought it was a house that had blown up in the next street."

    Mike Penning, Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead and former fire officer, was at the forward fire control in Hemel. At 10.00 am he said the fire services were struggling to contain the blaze:

    "They're now in the situation where they physically at the moment can't fight it - they've got over 100 fireman up there, they've got crews available from all over the south east" he revealed.

    "They've asked for special high velocity pumps which I understand the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister are sending in to them.

    "There's no immediate danger they feel to the local residents - even though we will continue to address that and we may have to keep pulling people out of their homes as the day goes on just for their own safety."

    Tanker driver, Paul Turner, says he'd just arrived for work at the depot when the explosion happened:

    "I just saw this great big ball of fire come up behind the building - I still didn't know what it was at that point. It was about 50 metres wide and then the loudest explosion, the loudest bang I've ever heard in my life" he said.

    "It  took me off my feet. I'm not quite sure if my knees buckled or whether the blast took me off my feet, I was just in shock at that point, got up turned around and just ran as fast as I could straight back to my car and sped out of the building as fast as I could."

    Liz Cousins and Maureen King were evacuated from the Holiday Inn hotel, which is close to the fuel depot.

    "It was absolutely horrendous, the bang" said Liz. "And then there was a second one. At first we didn't know what was happening. Luckily we were on the ground floor, I just grabbed a coat, ran to reception to see what was happening, and they told us.

    "There's actually people still on the coach that have just got pyjamas on. We've just been told that the hotel is sealed and they won't be able to get their things until tomorrow."

    At at news conference just after 10 am, the Chief Constable of Hertfordshire, Frank Whitely, said he was surprised more people weren't hurt: 

    "We're not in a position to totally conform the casualties but at the moment it looks as if we've got off a lot more lightly that you might expect in an explosion of this size. The fact that it occurred at the time it did is probably the saving grace there."

    What were your experiences?  Send us your stories using the comment box below or send us your photos to

    last updated: 12/12/05
    Have Your Say
    What were your experiences? Send us your stories using the comment box below or send us your photos to
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    paul smith
    I live in Hemel Henpstead and I woak at 6.05 to a loud roar, then a massive explosion

    Jamie Kruck
    the explosion was higher then an earthquake and the noise could be heard up to the likes of france and belgium, AMAZING.

    the smoke was massive people running down the street my wall craked and some bricks fell threw

    I live in Luton and drove around the edge of the buncefield estate at 2AM on the Sunday morning to avoid slow moving traffic on the M1 heading north due to fog or an accident. I often drive through there to avoid the M1 jams. I feel so lucky to be alive as it could have easily happened 4 hours earlier and blown me up as I drove down Three cherry trees lane. I remember smelling petrol somewhere that day (not sure if it was at buncefield though) but thought nothing of it, didn't even know that buncefield was a fuel depot till it blew up. I feel very sorry for people who have had their houses wrecked or lost their jobs and businesses. At least nobody lost their life. I was in a deep sleep that night but woke up just after 6 not knowing why (probably the original explosion), then I heard a loud thump and something in my house went clonk, I think it was the loft hatch. I went back to sleep. 2 hours later my friend from Hemel texted me asking if I heard the bang, I said yes what was it?, he replied, "watch the news!" I had BBC News24 on ALL day. I drove past there on the M1 last night (23rd December 2005) and there was a strong smell of petrol in the area which is worrying.

    Jessica Armstrong
    When i felt the house shake i got out of bed to see what had happened i then saw the plume of smoke just at the horizon as i watched it got bigger it was very scary.


    i live in milton keynes, and the explosion woke my whole family, i thought it was he centre MK blowing up, as there was a threat on it scheduled for sunday 11th.

    Mark Chambers
    I get so enraged by the people who moan about the blast waking them up or breaking their windows. Nobody seems to care about the 30 or so people working just 250 yards from the blast in Keystone distribution. We could have sustained the most injuries and deaths..............

    i live in stevenage and i slept right frew it

    Craig Cook
    I live just 1 mile away from the oil refineray, and when the explosion happened at 6 am, the noise was so loud, I thought an oil tanker blew up outside my house. I looked out the window, and all the car alarms were going off, and a Reliant Robin was upside down!

    natasha patel
    i was alseep, and all of a sudden the entire house jumped from the ground as if a bomb had been dropped, felt so drastically even tho i live 20mins away

    What I don't understand is why the westbound M10 and junction 8 are still closed. Perhaps someone would like to tell us.

    Harry, Luton
    I was in bed when there was a blast, and I looked outside, when I saw a big plume of smoke, going about fifty to sixty metres into the air. I wasn't in shock, as the smoke was so far away, but I had just wondered what had happened.

    bushey and watford also took the full blast and it shook buildings and broke windows amongst many other things...

    sean 14 year old boy
    i was sleeping until i got lifted out of my bed and i hit the floor because of the blast. I was in shock for the rest of the day.

    Dean Scarman
    I live just under a mile away and the industrial estate is on my front doorstep. I woke to an enormous bang and our house alarm went off. my first thoughts were that a palne had gone down because of the airport, but i turned on the TV and saw the news and was horrified.

    helen davies
    my friend and I were on a weekend shopping trip, staying at the Holiday Inn and were awakened by the enormous explosion at 6 o clock. The fire alarm went off and we grabbed some clothes and made our way out into the car park. The most frightening thing was opening the bedroom door and not knowing what to expect! Out in the car park we could see balls of fire shooting high into the sky. I still wasn't aware of what it was when another explosion shook the ground. In all there were four explopsions whilst we were in the car park. The police were on the scene very quickly although there seemed to be some confusion over whether we should evacuate or not. Eventually we walked into Hemel down some back roads escorted by two special constables. The first pub we came to opened its doors and made us coffee. Our coach then arrived to take us to the Salvation Army headquarters where we were made coffee and toast. Some people were kitted out with clothes as they had very little on. A local councillor visited us to check we were ok. Eventually when all our group had been located we were told we could make our way home to Leeds. Many people still had belongings in the hotel but it was sealed off. The hotel staff were brilliant. Thanks to everyone who looked after us.

    p4d - st albans
    i was awoken by the blast at exactly 6:00 but i didnt know why so i went downstairs and saw what had happened on Tv i was worried as my Grandad lives in hemel and its now ruined his house

    Lawrence Brown
    i was in bed when a huge bang and vibrations hit my dad's house all the windows smashed in and there are humungas cracks on the bedroom celling it was a terrifing ordeal.

    John Pyper - Luton
    Having been given an early morning call with the explosion at 6.05-6.10AM, I then couldn't gte back to sleep, so it was a early srat for the trip to Southampton to see the Hatters. Leaving Luton at 9.00am, we made the trip via Dunstable to the A41 and then M25 to the M3. Passing the site with 4 miles of it, it felt like the heaven were going to open with an eary light. We arrived in very quick time of 2 1/4 hours, but that was the good part. Having seen the Hatters lose 1-0, it took us over 4 1/2 hours to get home. Not a good day all round. Very frightening picture of your site from the general public. Thanks god it happen when it did and not 4 hours later!!

    im not suprise there was an explosion as i have smelt oil in hemel for the past few days.. obviously there was a leak or something, dont think it was done delibertatly

    Thats why they should keep the hemel hospital open!!!

    penny maton
    Woke up to a massive explosion. looked out of my bedroom window and could see balls of flames going up into the sky. There were people running up the path there were men with dogs. We got dressed and walked up the top of the road to the roundabout at the top of the Queensway the flames were really high. Police had shut off the road I came home and have been watching on the news all day. You can smell the smoke from our back garden as we are not that far away.

    Emma Harrold
    We live in St Albans and around 6am we were woken up to a very loud rumble and the whole house shook - enough to make the cupboard doors open! I looked out of my bedroom window and I could see fireballs in the air towards Hemel. It was very scary!

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