HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England – Explosions at one of Britain’s largest oil depots jolted an area north of London early Sunday, hurling multiple balls of fire into the sky, shattering windows and blanketing the area with smoke. Police said the blasts, which injured 36 people, appeared to be accidental.
But the powerful explosions felt throughout a large swath of southeast England including London, 25 miles away, rattled nerves in a country still jittery over terrorism after deadly transit bombings in July killed 52 people and four suicide bombers.
The oil depot is near Luton Airport and some residents reported hearing an aircraft flying low overhead shortly before the first explosion at around 6 a.m. But police said there was nothing to suggest a plane was involved.
“All indications at this stage are that this was an accident,” said Frank Whiteley, chief of police in Hertfordshire, the county where the depot is located. “However, clearly we will keep an open mind, as with all investigations, until we can confirm that for certain.”
Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have threatened to target fuel depots.
Police said 36 people were injured, four of them seriously.
More explosions were expected throughout the morning at the depot which stores 4 million gallons of fuel.
“The fire is contained,” Whiteley told a news conference in Hertfordshire. “Yes, it’s big and it’s going to burn for some time. But it is under control.”
Firefighters planned to use foam to stop the blaze spreading across the 1,500-foot by 2,800 foot depot and adjacent industrial park. The 20 blazing tanks were being allowed to burn themselves out while about 100 firefighters and 100 police officers stood by watching at the site.
“It’s a controlled burn,” said Jane Vine, a spokeswoman for the local county council.
Nearby Luton Airport remained open and flights were operating normally.
Emergency workers wearing masks cordoned off the area around the Buncefield Oil Terminal, about two miles from the town of Hemel Hempstead which was shaken by the blasts. Authorities evacuated residents nearby, as the plume moved slowly eastward.
Whiteley cautioned that the cloud contained irritants that could cause coughs and nausea. People in the path of the smoke should stay indoors, he warned.
Residents of Hemel Hempstead reported a loud boom and some felt their houses shake.
The Ramada Hotel in the town was evacuated after windows were shattered by the blast. Two guests received minor injuries from broken glass and were treated at the hotel, said Calum Russell, marketing director for Jarvis Hotels Ltd. All 187 guests had since returned to their rooms, Russell said.
“Around 6 a.m. as we were sleeping, there was a mighty explosion — a thunderclap that woke me up,” said Neil Spencer, 42, who lives less than a mile from the terminal. “It was fireball after fireball — truly amazing.”
Police said many roads and highways had been closed.
“There was a loud boom and the house shook violently,” said Duncan Milligan, of Hemel Hempstead, who said the blast woke him up. “I am about three miles from where the explosion took place but I can see flames high in the sky and smoke billowing everywhere. There is clearly a building on fire near the motorway and police and emergency services are everywhere.”
Local resident Richard Ayers said a massive column of smoke rose into the air and said the force of explosions had blown the roofs off houses near the oil depot.
“It is like it is doomsday,” he told the BBC.
Britain’s deadliest oil-related disaster was the July 6, 1988 explosion and fire on the North Sea oil platform Piper Alpha off the Scottish coast, which killed 167 workers.
In 1994, a blast and fire at an oil refinery in Milford Haven, Wales, injured 26 workers and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Oil companies Texaco and Gulf were eventually fined for violating health and safety regulations.