An urban explorer’s pictures of the remnants of an abandoned chemical plant in Northwest England have revived memories of a fatal explosion and fire that occurred there 31 years ago.
The subsequent U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation and its recommendations still impact the chemical industry today.
The 21 pictures show Castleford-based Hickson and Welch’s plant, which manufactured wood protection, furniture coatings and a range of other organic chemicals.
The fire started around 1:20 pm on Sept. 21, 1992. The Independent newspaper reported that people living near the plant heard a roaring sound followed by a huge fireball that engulfed part of the facility. Debris hurled into nearby fields — just missing schools, shops, homes and the town’s rugby league club. Witnesses said the associated smell made them feel sick and led to breathing difficulties.
Any other time of the day, and many more lives could have been lost.
Jim Manuel, chief fire officer for West Yorkshire, told the newspaper, “The initial explosion was very, very severe. It created a fireball which traveled 150 yards across the roadway and into a four-story block. It also destroyed a prefabricated building at the plant.”
Twenty-two fire trucks and more than 100 firefighters attended the incident; their quick thinking prevented fire water run-off from contaminating a nearby river used as a source of drinking water by surrounding towns and villages.
Published in 1994, the HSE’s report found the blast was triggered during clean out of residues in a batch still, a vessel that hadn’t been cleaned since its installation in the plant’s nitrotoluenes area in 1961.
The report notes that operators, mistakenly thinking the residue was a thermally stable tar, didn’t take a sample for analysis or check inside the vessel for flammable vapor before starting work.
Steam was used to soften the 34-cm thick sludge. As they reached further into the still, operators used increasingly longer-handled rakes.
At approximately 1:20 pm, the sole operator left raking noticed a blue light, which turned instantly to an orange flame. As he leapt from the scaffold around the vessel, an incandescent conical jet erupted from the manhole, projecting horizontally toward the control building. A vertical jet of burning vapors shot out the top rear vent to the height of a nearby distillation column.
The report found the jet fire lasted nearly a minute before subsiding to localized fires around the manhole and buildings nearby. The force of the jet destroyed the scaffold and propelled the manhole cover into the center of the site’s control building. The jet severely damaged this building and then hit the main office block, causing several fires to start inside.
Two men died instantly in the control room, while a woman and two other men who were in the office block died from their injuries later. Another 14 suffered serious injuries.
The HSE identified a plethora of failures that contributed to the blast, with the absence of maintenance procedures topping the list.
Impact of Report
The HSE held a press conference near the plant in 1994 to share its findings, attracting journalists from all over the U.K., including myself, representing the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ magazine The Chemical Engineer. Many local newspaper journalists questioned if and how safety standards were implemented at the plant and whether the company’s refusal to recognize unions was a factor.
When I asked if the near-miss with the fire water run-off and the local river would prompt any new regulations, I was told that it would.
The incident made chemical manufacturing and storage facilities update and expand their bunding arrangements around individual vessels and even whole sites to ensure they could contain any similar runoff.
A few days after the press conference, I talked to loss prevention and safety expert Trevor Kletz, who had just published his latest book Lessons from Disaster – How Organizations Have No Memory and Accidents Recur. He mused on the timing of the Hickson and Welch incident.
Kletz noted that several recent incidents at U.K. chemical plants had occurred at lunchtime — any other time of the day, and many more lives could have been lost. It was a point well-made and one which has stayed with me for the last 31 years. Hickson and Welch employed over 1,300 people at the time, many of them based in the office building.
Arch Chemicals took over the company in 2000 and eventually shut down the facility in July 2005.