HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England – A fire raging at an oil depot in southern Britain sent toxic smoke as far away as France and caused jitters on the global oil market Monday as firefighters struggled into a third day to douse the flames with chemical foam.
Authorities said they believe the explosion Sunday at the Buncefield depot north of London was an accident, but will examine other possible causes, including terrorism.
After extinguishing fires in 12 of the 20 tanks initially ablaze, the 150 firefighters withdrew for five hours amid fears that one of the flaming tanks could contain highly volatile fuel, said Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher. His office said firefighters resumed their work after determining that the fuel in the tank was not as volatile as had been feared.
The terminal stores 4.2 million gallons of fuel, and the fire has caused unease on the oil market and raised questions about safety at the nation’s oil facilities.
“There is nothing to suggest that it is anything other than an accident, but we’re keeping an open mind and when we get into the site we’ll treat it as a … scene which could be a crime. We’ll be doing full forensics,” said Chief Superintendent Jeremy Alford of Hertfordshire police. “We’d be remiss if we didn’t.”
Firefighters battled the enormous fire for more than 30 hours before pulling back Monday. Authorities shut a highway nearby and extended a closed-off zone around the depot 25 miles north of London because of the chance the tank might explode, Wilsher said.
He said flames had reignited in one tank where they had been extinguished earlier.
“I don’t want a human tragedy to go alongside the environmental tragedy that we’ve already got,” he told reporters as firefighters withdrew.
Wilsher told reporters the firefighters were in “uncharted territory.”
“This is the largest fire of this kind that the U.K. and Europe have dealt with,” he said.
Police said the ferocity of the blaze would make it extremely difficult for forensic experts to determine its exact cause, but there was no indication of foul play. Chief Constable Frank Whiteley said eyewitness accounts and closed-circuit television footage would be key to the investigation.
The series of explosions came four days after an al-Qaida videotape on the Internet called for attacks on facilities carrying oil, but officials drew no link.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott told Parliament there would be a full investigation once the fire was extinguished.