Changing Face of Hemel Hempstead Number 5

The Big Buncefield Bang.

By Alice Burgar April 2006

Smoke plume above Buncefield Site
Alice Burgar

The Big Buncefield Bang.

A Personal Account of The Big Buncefield Bang, – when a large part of the oil depot in Hemel Hempstead ‘disappeared’.

 The Buncefield Oil depot was built in the 1960’s to the west of Hemel Hempstead New Town between Maylands Industrial Estate and the M 1 Motorway. Gradually over the years the New Town Industrial Area expanded, as did some housing estates, so that they were built ever closer to the depot boundary. There were about 3 dozen fuel tanks from which road tanker deliveries were made and a network of underground pipes serving airports, such as Heathrow, and other oil installations.

I lived for a number of years about 500 yards to the North of the depot across open fields in a dwelling that had been there well before the depot was built. During the time I lived there we sometimes experienced the strong smell of fuel, which must have leaked from the depot, but endless complaints were disregarded.

The Morning of the Bang

At just after 6 o’clock on the morning of Sunday 11th December 2005, I was asleep in bed when a sheet of ceiling about 5’ by 4’ literally fell on me, giving me a large bump on my forehead, a black eye and a headache. I cowered under my duvet with arms over my head, fully expecting the rest of my bungalow to fall on top of me, and wondering why my lovely home was tumbling down.

This was accompanied by a HUGE ‘whooshing’ sound. My husband, unhurt, removed the ceiling that was covering me, and we leapt out of bed, ran to a glass door that faces south towards the oil depot. The door itself had burst wide open at the hinges and was only held on by the lock.

The whole of the horizon, as high and wide as we could see was a mass of flames. We could not shut the glass door and our bedroom ceiling had descended, with lights and wires hanging down, bedside lamps, plants and other furniture scattered.

“Go to the loo, dress quickly and get out”! I remember thinking, “dress warmly”, as I grabbed my coat, picked up my handbag, keys, and stuffed scarf, gloves and brolly into the bag I had taken to football the day before. On leaving my home I thought to myself, ”Oh, good, I’ve got my Watford football season ticket in my bag”!

Ready to Leave

Two neighbours arrived to ensure we were alright and said they too were leaving, as it was possible the fire would spread. Meanwhile my husband had staggered outside clutching his computer with precious family history data, researched over the past 30 years.

Although the garage doors were badly buckled, he drove his car out with only some minor damage. I placed my bags in his car, but he suggested I too should take my car. So we hurriedly opened the other garage door and I drove out. Meanwhile my son, his wife and 2 young daughters, who lived next door, were also making their escape, having found their 2 cats, and having let the 4 donkeys out of their stable into the paddock in the hope that they would be safe enough.

My cousin who lives with her husband next to my son was away in Addis Ababa, so we quickly checked that her home was not on fire. Although we took no real notice at the time, all three homes were extremely badly damaged by the blast; doors and windows including frames blown out on the drive, ceilings down, glass everywhere, strong roof beams in loft and workrooms broken, all garage doors buckled, roofs lifted and even a large garage wall moved. Subsequently even more serious damage was discovered.

By 6: 20 a.m. we were on our way, turning down the lane leading towards Redbourn. It was still very dark; I was unable to keep my husband’s car lights in view, so failed to see where he and my son had stopped. He tried phoning me and was surprised to find my mobile was switch off. It took some time for him to realise that my phone was in my bag in his car! As I could not find him and had no phone or other belongings.

I drove via St. Albans to friends in Kings Langley.

They rose magnificently to the occasion, took me in, gave me tea and helped me make several phone calls to find my husband and let my family members know that we were safe. I was able to book a hotel room in Bourne End. where we stayed for 2 weeks.

We spent Christmas itself in Yorkshire with my daughter. Meanwhile my younger daughter located a house for us to rent in Nash Mills, where we remained for several months whilst our home was being repaired.

The fire raged for several days—the largest in Europe since the Second World War—destroying about 2 dozen fuel tanks. It was only when we were allowed to visit our homes again and the devastated area near the depot, did we realise the magnitude of what had occurred, and the amazing good fortune that no-one had been killed.

Thus it was that early on Sunday 11th December 2005, a small part of Hemel Hempstead ‘disappeared’ with a huge bang and a lot of smoke.

This page was added on 11/07/2011.

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