The disastrous explosion in Hemel that was heard across Europe

On December 11, 2005, a huge explosion occurred at an oil storage facility in Hertfordshire.

Located just off the M1 motorway in Hemel Hempstead is the Buncefield Oil Depot which carries approximately 273 million litres of fuel.

The explosion was the largest since the Second World War and left residents in fear and panic.

Read more: Lying Hatfield driver blamed 2 innocent people for 110mph M11 speeding

It wasn’t just in Hertfordshire the disruption was felt, one report claimed it was heard across Europe in Holland.

The Hertfordshire Oil Storage Terminal – co-owned by TOTAL UK 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.

There was a lot of speculation around the disaster – was it arsonists or, considering it was just months after the 7/7 attacks, was it a terrorist attack?

But we soon found out it was something much more ordinary – a system failing – but with catastrophic results.

What happened at the explosion?

  • Unleaded motor fuel was being pumped into storage tank 912 in the north-west corner of the site
  • Staff did not realise that the capacity had been reached
  • Major safeguards had failed – automatic shutdown did not happen and the fuel continued to be pumped in
  • By 5.20am, the tank was overflowing through the 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 the fire engulfed 20 large storage tanks
  • Emergency services announced a major emergency at 6.08am and a tremendous firefighting effort began. At peak times this effort consisted of 25 fire engines, 20 support vehicles and 180 firefighters

  • Around 150 firefighters were called immediately to the incident, and began tackling the blaze at 8.20am, putting in containment measures before applying a large quantity of foam

  • The blaze took five days to put out
Firefighters trying to extinguish the last of the flames on December 13
(Image: Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images)

The Buncefield fire inquiry

A full public inquiry was rejected, but a government inquiry held by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment was opened.

This confirmed the series of events, but didn’t aim to assign blame. The inquiry found that a high-level switch should have detected when the tank was full, and when that failed an alarm should have sounded – but neither operated on the morning of the explosion.

Ultimately, the depot was destroyed so badly there was no way of determining what exactly caused the vapour cloud to set alight.

Following the government inquiry, those affected by the blast brought civil action against those responsible for the blast.

The Independent reported a High Court judge, Mr Justice David Steel, ruled that Total UK were liable for the damage caused to nearby residents and businesses (as it was found those working on the Buncefield site had employment contracts with Total) – opening them up to claims of around £750 million.

Criminal cases against those who operated the depot came in 2010.

Total UK pleaded guilty to offences under the Health and Safety At Work Act, but were just one of five companies to be convicted for breaches.

What does the site look like now?

We visited the site on Tuesday, July 6 (15 years on) and you wouldn’t have thought there was once a disastrous explosion.

Reconstruction of the depot only began in 2013, with shiny new white oil containers.

The site is not open for the public to freely wander in – only those working there and at the BP nearby it.

A lot more safety measures and contingency plans have been put into place since the explosion with safety standards significantly improving in the industrial sector. including;

  • Improved leadership and focus on process safety
  • Wider focus on training and competency
  • Improved equipment and maintenance requirements
  • Better communication both on and off site
  • Increased development on process safety leading and lagging indicators

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HertsLive – Hemel Hempstead