Blasts shatter British oil depot

More than 40 hurt

police say accident, not terrorism, was apparently the cause

December 12, 2005|By COX NEWS SERVICE

LONDON -- A series of huge explosions at a fuel depot north of London rocked southern England early yesterday, sending flames 300 feet into the sky and spreading a dense column of smoke over the countryside.

Police, while saying they did not know the cause of the blasts, said the incident appeared to be an accident. Four days earlier, an al-Qaida videotape appeared on the Internet calling for attacks on facilities carrying oil "stolen" from Muslims in the Middle East, the Associated Press reported.

Nerves in Britain, still frayed after four suicide bombers in London killed 52 others in July, were rattled by televised images of fresh destruction. There were reports that residents heard a low-flying plane before the explosions, which began at 6:03 a.m.

Police said they did not suspect terrorism, though the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that an investigation has begun that will include anti-terror police.

"All indications at this stage are that this was an accident," said Frank Whiteley, chief of police in the surrounding county of Hertfordshire. "Clearly we will keep an open mind, as with all investigations, until we can confirm that for certain."

The explosions destroyed much of the fuel depot, which supplies southeastern England with gas and other fuels. The shock waves blew out windows and caved in the doors of houses in the town of Hemel Hempstead, 25 miles from London, where the blasts occurred. One official described it as "possibly the largest incident of this kind in peacetime Europe."

More than 40 people were hurt, one of them seriously. No one was killed, police said.

The AP said a videotape appeared Wednesday on the Internet in which al-Qaida's No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, called for attacks against Persian Gulf oil facilities. Portions of the video were released Sept. 19 and shown on Al-Jazeera television.

"I call on the holy warriors to concentrate their campaigns on the stolen oil of the Muslims, most of the revenues of which go to the enemies of Islam," said al-Zawahri, who is Egyptian.

All day, televisions in Britain showed images of the fires and huge plume of smoke, which rose up to 10,000 feet and prompted the evacuation of 2,000 people. Officials said the fires, though contained, could burn for another day or two.

A hospital spokesman described the smoke as being of "low toxicity," but it made some people cough and affected the large number of police who sealed off the area and evacuated nearly 300 people to a bowling alley being used as a temporary shelter. About 25 police officers complained of such problems as chest tightness and shortness of breath, Howard Bortkett-Jones, medical director of the two local hospitals, told the Associated Press.

Weather forecasters predicted that rain expected today would wash the pollutants out of the air.

Paul Turner, the driver of a tanker truck, told the BBC the explosion lifted him off his feet. When he came down, he said, he ran for his life.

"I just saw this great big ball of fire come up from behind the building," he said. "It was about 50 meters wide. Then there was the loudest explosion I have ever heard in my life. I got up, turned around and ran to my car and sped out of there as fast as I could."

A 15-mile section of the primary north-south M1 highway was closed, along with smaller roads near the depot, causing major traffic snarls.

The blast was loud enough to wake people in London. The BBC reported, based in part on a text message sent in by a viewer, that the initial explosion could be heard in the Netherlands. But many people south of London heard nothing.

The Buncefield depot, where the explosion took place, is near Luton Airport, which remained open. Buncefield was reported to hold 4 million gallons of gasoline, diesel, oil, kerosene and aviation fuel. The depot is owned in a joint venture that includes Texaco and the French company Total SA.

Five percent of Britain's oil supply is reported to be stored there. Officials said there was no need to fear a shortage. But the BBC broadcast pictures of drivers lining up at gas stations to refuel.

The area was cordoned off. Major highways were closed. And schools in the area are not expected to open today.

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