As the local community continues to count the cost both financially and emotionaly of the what has been billed as the largest peacetime fire in Europe since WW2, as the local historian I have been anxious to record the event and create an archive for future generations. In addition to all the gathering and recording that involves, and immediatly of more importance, in my role as Chairman of the Leverstock Green Village Association I am a member of the Community Task Force which has been set up by DBC to try and address some of the problems resulting from the fire. This naturally is taking up much of my time, and together with all my normal activities means I am not likely to have the time for a while to post the rest of the relevant information on this website. However, it is my intention to post more than just this first day's account eventually. So, WATCH THIS SPACE!
Meanwhile if you wish to tell me YOUR story relating to Buncefield, please complete the form below and I will add it to the archive.
Its not every day that the local historian gets to experience and witness a major historical event happening before her eyes, but today that is just what has happened. With the events of the day, the UK, and probably the rest of Europe if not the World, has been focused on Leverstock Green - they’ve even showed us pinpointed from space beneath our huge black pall of a cloud from Buncefield.
So in case the reader has not had access to the news media and wonders what on earth I am on about, or is reading this is 20 years time, here is my account, partly first hand, partly gleaned from those I’ve met during the course of the day, and partly from the UK’s Media.
At 6 am this morning we were woken by a terrific explosive bang. We were instantly awake, “Was that Thunder?” said Martin, “ No” I said, “I think It sounded like a train crash!” The cat sat up and proceeded to wash her ears and we began to hear – after the initial very loud silence, far off sounds of car alarms, and the occasional Police vehicle. Martin stirred and went to the bathroom – “I think it’s the Oil Depot”, he said, “ I can see the glow from the window.” I looked myself and concurred and then went back and switched on the TV in our room – sure enough there was breaking news of an explosion at the Buncefield depot. A few minutes later, mulling over what would be happening, I was just thinking that the Village Hall was on the official “standby” list for emergencies when the phone rang. It was about 6.20.
I knew the voice instantly, it was a local Police Inspector friend who had used to be on the LGVA Committee, and he was phoning to ask me to open up the hall for the Police to use.
A few minutes later, pausing only to grab the camera, fling on some clothes, feed the cats and collect tea/coffee milk and biscuits – oh and a box of Sugar Puffs for a hasty breakfast – Martin and I were at Leverstock Green Village Hall. It was still dark, and at that stage quite foggy. I had phoned Margaret Rayner, my Vice Chairman to let her know what was happening. When we got there Barry (ex-Caretaker and Sunday cleaner) had already opened up and a few Police had arrived. They wished to use the hall as their Bronze Level Foreward Command Post, and an RVP – a Police Rendezvous Point.
When we got inside Barry Head was busy clearing up the only apparent damage to the hall (at that time) of one of the light diffusers over the double fluorescent tubes in the annex. It had fallen to the floor and smashed, yet the lights still worked OK. A lot of debris ( including what looked like pieces of fruit cake!) had however been knocked from the kitchen ceiling, and all the surfaces had to be thoroughly wiped down before we could start serving refreshments.
From the back door of the hall we could see very clearly – even though dawn was only just breaking – the 200-foot flames and pall of black smoke drifting over us from the oil depot.
Over the next few hours we were kept very busy. Ralph & Margaret Rayner joined us at the hall and we made countless cups of tea and coffee for the dozens of Police and Ambulance crew who poured in from all over Hertfordshire, to be checked in and re-deployed elsewhere. The Rayners, who live in Bedmond Road, told of how they were woken by the blast and by their roof hatch being sucked up into the roof, turned around and blown out through the hatch, somewhat distorted. Their bath panel had also been blown off, but otherwise as far as they could tell they had suffered no further damage.
Barry set up tables in the hall for the co-ordinators, and Ralph scavenged some banqueting roll from the larder to make a “White board” for the Chief Inspector, and two officers commandeered the telephones and fax machine in the office and these were kept humming and in constant use for the next four hours. The Police asked for a radio, so Martin went home to bring one, and as a very useful afterthought, the portable TV from our son’s room which we set up on the hatch in the kitchen. That way we were all able to keep abreast of what was happening.
For the next five hours or so it was very hectic. Police and Ambulance crew being drafted in from elsewhere in the county and neighbouring forces, turned up to find out where they needed deploying. Others who had been out on the cordon set round the Industrial estate and the Poynders Hill area, came in for some relief and refreshment. Despite many of them having been on duty for a previous double shift, there was no complaint about having to continue to work.
The kettles were kept constantly boiling, and I seemed to be for ever opening new packets of biscuits. Through the brief skylights in the kitchen I could see the dense black plume of the cloud overhead, and occasionally paused to pop outside to take another photograph. Strangely enough the air quality did not seem effected.
We soon began to hear of a few injuries and some of the damage done to the homes in Badgers Croft and Wellberry Terrace. Nick Taylor arrived – he lives in Datchworth Turn with the news that the whole of the estate north of Green Lane had been evacuated. (See some of Nick's photos at http://www.lgva.freeserve.co.uk/Buncefield.html.) He had brought his elderly neighbour with him believing the hall was being used for evacuees. The TV & Radio informed us that homes along Woodlane End, and at Woodhall Farm were similarly evacuated. Several Police were telling us that the Maylands Industrial estate was like a bomb site, with offices reduced to matchsticks. We weren’t to see images of this for several days and it was difficult to imagine. Hemel Police Station, in the opposite direction, had also lost many of its windows. The evacuees were being taken to Jarman Park and the Sports Centre in Hemel, leaving the Village Hall purely as a Police RVP and Forward Command Post for the time being.
One thing thankfully became plain, despite the huge devastation the blast had caused, and despite the great plume of black smoke overhead, no one had died. Injuries, with only one or two exceptions were relatively minor. If such a catastrophe had had to happen, 6am on a Sunday morning was the right time for it to happen with very few workers on the industrial estate, and most people in their beds at home. Thankfully the threatened closure of the Hemel Accident & Emergency Dept had not yet materialised so the injured were able to be treated quickly and close to home without a mass exodus to Watford or Hatfield to add to the confusion and difficulties.
Photograph courtesy Chiltern Air Rescue
In the course of the morning we heard several smaller explosions as additional tanks of fuel were ignited – the worry was would there be another mass explosion as before, but our wonderful fire-crew – about 150 of them I believe – were risking their lives to ensure that this didn’t happen. We only had to look out of the fire exit at the back of the hall to realise that they had a tough and dangerous task on their hands. The plume of black smoke was relentless, and showed in stark contrast in what had become a bright sunny December morning. The flames at the depot could still be clearly seen and must have risen well over 100 feet in the air. Some of the pictures we were seeing on the television gave us an idea of the awesome nature of the fire and the damage it had already caused by the initial blast. The fire-crews were trying to prevent the fire spreading to other tanks by dowsing them in gallons of cold water, yet this was not wholly effective as more of the huge tanks ignited. Nothing as yet could be done to attempt to put the fire out as massive quantities of foam concentrate would be needed and this needed bringing in from all over the country.
With the potentially toxic plume spreading over the SE England and men and equipment being drafted in from all over the place, this was no longer a local disaster, but a national one, yet one in which Leverstock Green and Hemel Hempstead were constantly being mentioned on the media. There would no longer be anyone in the country unaware of where Leverstock Green or Hemel are.
The emergency services continued to devour biscuits and cups of tea and coffee, the atmosphere was very good natured and one of camaraderie, but you could almost tangibly feel the adrenaline levels, particularly when staff came in off the cordon, or in one or two cases, fire-crew came in for a respite. One such fireman warned us that we needed to check carefully for structural damage and contact our insurance companies, as the blast will have caused all buildings to “heave”, and on resettling walls and roofs may no longer be properly aligned, yet this may not become apparent until a few months down the line when we experienced some really heavy rain.
By the middle of the morning, on popping to the ladies, I could see a mass of civilians as well as Police outside the hall. One or two were locals come to see if they could help and being firmly turned away by the Police, but most were journalists who had decided our hall and Westwick Field was likely one of the better advantage points they were going to get for a while. We began to see photographs of the view from the field appear on the BBC news, and amazingly our Village Bakers sweeping up the debris from his shop front. We were so intent on getting into the hall on arrival that we hadn’t realised the Baker’s window had been completely blown out, as had the Pharmacy next door – only the Baker’s shop front, being open to the paved area was obviously a problem; whereas the Pharmacy still had the metal security grill down in from of the window, holding the majority of the glass behind it.
Popping outside to investigate, Martin brought back the news that the BBC had imported a sky lift, and they were preparing to host a journalist up in it to get a better picture. It transpired later that as a member of the BBC news team, Nick Taylor had managed to talk his way onto the sky-lift platform and had taken some photographs from on high. (They moved to Adeyfield later where there was room for more members of the Media.The road in front of the hall was positively heaving with people
Earlier on we had been joined by the Police Helicopter and its crew – news of the cups of tea on offer had obviously spread! Westwick Field made an excellent landing place for the chopper, and was very photogenic.
By 12.30 things were calming down in the hall, and one could see past the fluorescent jackets to the hall’s walls and floor. Margaret & I discussed whether we should phone other committee members to relieve us, but it seemed unnecessary as the Chief Inspector said he wanted to wind down the operation in our hall and let the rest of us go about our business.
The Vicar, Simon Cutmore came in to see how we were faring. He brought terrible tales of the damage done to houses in Wellbury Terrace and Badgers Croft, and of almost total devastation at the Primary School. He looked drained as a result of the tales he had been hearing from his parishioners and had seen some of the devastation on the estate for himself. He had also been to the school where he is a Governor. Alan Phair the headmaster, had counted upwards of 80 panes of glass blown either out or in and several mangled doors. There was glass everywhere. Once again we were thanking God it was Sunday and not a normal working day. Simon also told us of Holy Trinity’s East Window which he described as being like tissue paper. One of the few remaining un-replaced Victorian stained glass windows in the church, the central panel had blown in along an edge, kept more or less in place by the iron bars guarding the window, and the leads for the window itself.
By about 1.30 the Chief Inspector was merely awaiting confirmation from his senior officers that they could close the existing operation down in the hall – I was to learn later that they had different plans for the hall with our agreement. Margaret told Martin and I to go home and get some lunch, and as Martin had to go to work the next day not to come back. She & Ralph would man the fort and if necessary call in John & Yvonne Baldwin. A look out of the door showed the fire still to be raging, and the media informed us all that it might take 3 or 4 days to put the fire out. No one seemed to have any idea as to how the conflagration had started, or rather how the initial small fire setting off the explosive blast had happened. One thing at least, the authorities appeared to be ruling out terrorism, saying it appeared to be purely an accident.
The WRVS arrived bringing drinks and sandwiches just as we were leaving, so we gathered our remaining supplies, the TV and the Radio and left for home, stopping off at the church yard to view and photograph the broken east window (See above)
The rest of the day was a little bit of an anticlimax. Having got a late lunch, (the chicken we were going to roast went in the freezer instead), Martin went to Little Gaddesden to visit his aunt who was in a nursing home. She had no radio or TV and was wholly unaware of what was gong on! I found I could settle to doing little and instead watched the endless reports on BBC News 24. It seemed a little weird to be watching news of what was happening just a mile up the road. The telephone rang quite often with family & friends wanting to know if we were OK or not, I did however, find time to send out a round Robin e-mail assuring the world that the Chapman’s were OK. Over the next few days I was to receive mails from all over the world from contacts made via my local history website, people who barely knew me, but nevertheless concerned for my safety and that of my family. It was very heart warming.
I learnt later from Margaret that the operation in the hall finally closed down about 3pm. Before that Mike Penning our MP had turned up, as had a journalist from the Gazette – Margaret told them I’d taken pictures at the hall and they asked if I would send them the photos. As with the London bombings in July, many of the photographic and video images shown on the TV were contributed by local people sending in images from their cameras and mobile phones. By the end of the following day the BBC alone had received over 65,000 images from the general public.
By the evening reports were being shown of some of the devastation to people’s homes, and individuals were interviewed who were evacuated to Jarman Park. It was really strange to see people we know looking out at us from the small screen. Many faces from church in particular seemed to have been caught up in the exodus. There were also many pictures of the fire at the depot, though most taken from a distance. Naturally the motorway was fully closed for the stretch alongside the depot, and further afield. There was a very real danger of further explosions, and in anycase the hoses carrying water were stretched from Marchmont Pond “balancing tank” (next to Wellbury Terrace on the Mickelfield estate) along Breakspear Way and up Green Lane.
Of course shutting down many miles of motorway had its own knock-on effect, and some photographs taken from surveillance cameras on the motorway were surreal. Usually teaming with traffic, the road surface just reflected back any available light, with a heavy dark cloud hovering overhead and an orange glow from the direction of the fire. It was obvious it was going to be a long haul, and very little other news was discussed on BBC News 24 for the remainder of the day.
Photograph courtesy Chiltern Air Rescue
The views front and back of our home that first afternoon.
The pall of smoke was even visible from space, and this photo was beamed back from the meteorological satellite.
On a personal note, it had been my original intention to werite a day by day account of how things unfolded. Events rather overtook me and I never did, largely because I was invited to join DBC's Recovery Group Panel representing LGVA.
The REcovery Groups role was to
provide and co-ordinate ongoing support to the affected residents and wider affected community
ensure the provision of information to all concernedfacilitate assessment of the long term impact on the community cohesion and capacity
report progress back to the Recovery Group on a regular basis.
As part of this work the LGVA newsletter distributors delivered a communication to all households in the village on behalf of the Task Force, in addition to their normal tasks.
The health of the Maylands business community has a direct effect on many of our local residents and businesses and is paramount to the well being of our Village. A multi agency forum took place in the Village Hall in March to address some of the issues raised.
I represented the Association at a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and was able to put pertinent questions to him, and I continue to work with the Community Recovery Group within Dacorum Borough Council’s Task Force.
LGVA also hosted a meeting of those on the Health and Safety Executive conducting the investigation, to enable a sharing of information, and allow local residents to voice their major concerns.
LGVA continued to support Dacorum Borough Council in any way that it could for the benefit of our residents, and in particular by ensuring all residents were aware of where they could seek either financial help or advice on any issues resulting from the explosion. Many of the problems with regard to unemployment and initially undetected damage were only just surfacing by the summer, and it was anticipated that we shall need to continue in this supportive role for some time to come.
The Community Recovery Group’s focus then moved on – focusing on the positive rather than the negative. We worked with local schools and school children on a number of initiatives both to ensure our young people really understood what happened and had an outlet for their own concerns, and to see how we could move forward from the event. The Youth Forums initiated by the group were nominated for a prestigious award. A People’s Exhibition tookplace during the weekend of 9-11 December 2006, staged in a Big Red Bus in Marlowes on the Saturday; around the area on Sunday & in the village for the tree ceremony etc. on the Monday, and later on the Industrial Estate. The Pin Oak, planted on the Village Green at Leverstock Green in commemoration is still thriving.
THE LEVERSTOCK GREEN CHRONICLE
A detailed history of one village in Hertfordshire, UK