Inspectioneering Journal

Experts Puzzled Over the UK's Largest Storage Tank Terminal Fire

By Chris Ablitt, Senior Risk Engineer at TWI, and Julian Speck, Structural Integrity Department Manager at TWI Ltd. This article appears in the March/April 2006 issue of Inspectioneering Journal.

The Terminal

On Sunday morning 11 December 2005, fuel at the Buncefield storage terminal located about 45km (28 miles) north-west of central London exploded, starting fires that have been described as the biggest of their kind in peacetime Europe, Fig.1. The terminal is a major hub on the UK’s oil pipeline network and is the primary aviation fuel source for London’s Gatwick, Heathrow and Luton airports.

Fire from the terminal, immediately after the explosions
Figure 1. Fire from the terminal, immediately after the explosions. (Permission: Free Liense. Source:

The Buncefield complex is operated by Hertfordshire Oil Storage Ltd which is owned by TOTAL (60%) and TEXACO (40%). It was the fifth largest oil-products storage depot in the UK (5% of UK oil storage), with a capacity of 60 million gallons (273 million litres) of fuel, Table 1. Half of the complex stores aviation fuel, and the remainder stores petrol (gasoline) and diesel fuel for petrol stations across much of the south-east of England.

Table 1. Key Facts: Hertforshire Oil Storage Terminal
 First opened in 1968
 Fills 400 tanker trucks a day
 Direct pipeline to Heathrow
 60% owned by Total, 40% owned by Texaco
 Employs 16 people

Explosion Damage and Injuries

The British Geological Survey measured the explosion at 2.4 on the Richter scale. Witnesses subsequently observed flames hundreds of feet high from many miles away. The surrounding property damage ranged from broken windows, blown-in front doors on nearby houses and blown off roofs, to the collapse of a warehouse about half a mile (800 m) away. Several office blocks in the vicinity lost every window.

Most buildings in the area were evacuated by the emergency services because of the fear of more explosions and the hazards of unstable building structures. Fortunately, there were no fatalities and 43 reported injuries, none of whom were in a life- threatening condition. All personnel at the storage terminal were accounted for. If the event had happened a few hours later and on a weekday morning, these offices would have been full of people, no doubt leading to dozens of deaths.

A tanker driver, who had just arrived for work at the depot when the explosion occurred, told the BBC: "I just saw this great big ball of fire come up from behind the building. It was about 50 metres wide. Then there was the loudest explosion I have ever heard in my life. It took me off my feet. I got up, turned around and ran to my car and sped out of there as fast as I could."

Fire-fighting Response

About 180 fire fighters tackled the blaze with foam, although this was initially delayed by several hours over concerns about possible pollution of local rivers. (Some chemical components of fire fighting foams present risks to ecosystems in riverside environments). An artificial lake for mixing foam and water for tackling the fires was constructed, Table 2. Water and foam were pumped along chains of up to 16 fire engines using high pressure pumps to deliver 32,000 litres per minute onto the pool fires, Fig.2. The resulting ‘foam blankets’ act to smother flames and ‘water curtains’ were also used to prevent the spread of fire between tanks. A bunded artificial reservoir was constructed to contain foam and water run-off before treatment and disposal. Fires in 12 of the 20 tank fires were put out within seven hours. All the tank fires were finally extinguished on 13 December 2005 after several setbacks including the re-ignition of adjacent tanks.

Table 2. Fighting the Buncefield terminal fire
 Six high-pressure pumps
 250,000 liters of foam concentrate
 15 million liters of water
 30km of hose
 180- fire-fighters
 26 fire engines
 20 support vehicles
 75% of Hertfordshire fire personnel on site
 Support from 16 other brigades
Oil fire extinguished at Buncefield
Figure 2. Oil fire extinguished at Buncefield. (Permission: Getty Images News. Source: image# 56425149)

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